AFI FEST Report: Merry Christmas (Joyeux Noël) Review

Peter Martin, Managing Editor

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An all-star European cast, a timely anti-war message, and a true story combined to create a picture that’s a big box office success in France and is poised to smash records in Germany.

"C-o-n-v-e-n-t-i-o-n-a-l" is the conclusion I drew from that description. Maybe even "b-o-r-i-n-g." As in, a traditional movie told in a traditional way about a traditional topic. Indeed, MERRY CHRISTMAS unfolds in a straightforward manner, taking its own sweet time to get to its turning point, which revolves around a guy singing a Christmas carol. (I kid you not.) So how did this movie dig its nails into my heart and yank out a reaction?

The setting for the true story is this: the First World War has been grinding for a few months, Christmas Eve 1914 approaches, and enemy combatants are dug into trenches just yards away from each other. Even coming from hugely different backgrounds, the French, the Scottish and the Germans all shared a common disdain for the necessity of bloodshed, as well as a common gentlemanly civility, appropriate to that age. As unlikely as it sounds, a short-lived truce resulted from unusual circumstances that night, more Christmas carols were sung, bread was broken, and everyone saw the humanity in everyone else.

Writer/director Christian Carion (THE GIRL FROM PARIS) laboriously establishes the characters during the first part of the film. Though these scenes are schematic, they allow the details of the truce to emerge from the trenches in an organic fashion, as each character reacts in a manner that appears entirely natural.

Later, the consequences to the soldiers are that much more devastating, as their superiors view their actions as treason. From the remove of nearly a century, most viewers will consider such “treason” as entirely sane and praiseworthy. After the pacifist bent of the brief truce period lulls the viewer into a peaceful state, it's a shock to see bloodthirsty leaders rousing the troops back to war.

That's where the true emotions of MERRY CHRISTMAS come out. Depending on where your sympathies lie, you can make your own application to current ongoing wars and the wisdom of nations engaging in such. Beyond specific conflicts, however, MERRY CHRISTMAS makes the simple point that war is devastating and asks the more complex, if hopelessly naive, question, why can't nations resolve their conflicts without killing?

Among the large cast, Daniel Brühl stands out as a brusque German officer; Guillaume Cadet brings a gentle soul wrapped in a reluctantly steely exterior to his role as a French officer. Also featured are Benno Fürmann as the carol singer, Diane Krüger as his girlfriend and fellow singer, and Gary Lewis as a fiery, protective Scottish priest.

With top-notch production values and broad appeal, MERRY CHRISTMAS is the type of mainstream message movie that one needn't feel ashamed of recommending.

The film first stirred interest here at Twitch in May ahead of its premiere at Cannes. You can read a Reuters story (via Yahoo!) about its success in France here.

The official web site is here (French-language). MERRY CHRISTMAS is France's official submission for the foreign-language Academy Award; nominations will be announced at the end of January.

Sony Pictures Classics plans a US release beginning March 3, 2006; they have a placeholder web site here with photos and a press kit on PDF.

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