Film

Joyeux Noël (2005)

Cynthia Fuchs

Certainly few war zones would allow for such communal religious touchstones, given that religious belief is more often than not the impetus for war.

Joyeux Noël

Director: Christian Carion
Cast: Diane Kruger, Benno Furmann, Guillaume Canet, Gary Lewis, Dany Boon, Daniel Brühl, Alex Ferns
Distributor: Sony Pictures
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Sony
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2005-12-16
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;

He's lost his colour very far from here,

Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,

And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race

And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.

-- Wilfred Owen, "Disabled"

A series of schoolboys stand at the front of a series of empty classrooms, reciting the same pledge to their homelands. As the camera pushes in, each child speaks in his own language -- French, English, German -- performing a promise to "annihilate" the enemy who threatens his god-given national identity.

Following this plainly ominous opening, Christian Carion's Oscar-nominated Joyeux Noël adopts an ostensibly broader perspective. Now, you know, comes the results of such indoctrination, as the camera soars over gorgeous, unmarred landscapes en route to a ruralish church in Scotland. It's 1914, and inside, two strapping blond brothers are celebrating the fact that war has been declared. "At last," says Jonathan (Steven Robertson), ringing the bell before he rushes out the door to spread the news, "Something has happened in our lives!"

He has no idea, of course, how devastating this something will be. But as he exits, the camera lingers on the face of their gentle Anglican priest, Palmer (Gary Lewis), aghast. He ends up going to the front as a stretcher-bearer, in his own effort to provide spiritual comfort for the young men of his parish (the other, slightly reluctant brother is William [Robin Laing]). The changes in their understandings of what they've signed on for register when they reach the front -- rendered in repeated close-ups of the boys' faces, becoming even paler, and in Palmer's earnest attempts to maintain a sort of "order," the sort premised on Catholic rituals for marking death.

As its title suggests, the film pivots on the first Christmas of WWI, when the Scottish kids find themselves in a trench near a French unit headed by Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet). He's also inclined to keep an orderly facade, but he prefers to think about his pregnant wife (whose photo he does on, at least until he loses it) and listen to the nostalgic tales of familial joys told by his plucky orderly Ponchel (Dany Boon). If only they retain the possibility of returning to their previous lives, they think, the war will be over someday soon, and their routines will be recovered. In fact, the Great War will go on through 1918, and leave millions dead.

To indicate the "diversity" of men affected, Joyeux Noël cuts between the Scottish and French units, and a third, the Germans, positioned in an opposing trench across a patch of land within hearing distance. The German troops appear much like the French and Scottish, in that they are tentative, bored, and exhausted -- the mud is tedious, the bombs screaming and exploding, the expectation of stoic resolve daunting. But their fierce young commander, Hörstmayer (Daniel Brühl), postures as the stereotypical German officer, acting out his own disappointment wit the inglorious situation by disdaining the "artist" among his otherwise solidly working class troops, the opera singer Nikolaus Sprink (body by Benno Fürmann, voice by Rolando Villazón).

While he means to be a regular soldier, Sprink is introduced in a way to underline his privilege and isolation: he's on a soundstage, performing in a movie about warriors, with his life and professional partner, the Danish born Anna Sörensen (Diane Kruger, last seen Stateside ripping through museums with Nic Cage in National Treasure). Here his profile is as beautiful as hers, and when they realize he too will be called up, they turn to offer parallel portraits in well-lit worry.

Desperate to see her man and privileged according to her stardom, arranges to bring Sprink to occupied France for a holiday concert, then accompanies him to the front, where she greets gaping-mouthed troops. Here, on Christmas Eve, with lighted trees sent up from headquarters, Sprink is overcome with sentiment, and begins singing "Silent Night" for his men, and, given their close spacing, the French and Scots as well (the Scots have their bagpipes along, and so provide accompaniment). Before they all quite know what's happened, the commanding officers have convened and called a ceasefire for the night, thus allowing the men to share prayer (courtesy of dear Palmer), wine, and chocolate, a bit of soccer and a song by Anna (her voice by Natalie Dessay).

As the camera insistently cuts from one rapt face to another, designating the moment as the astounding confluence of minds, spirits, and peaceful impulses, a remarkable other scene takes place, just off to the side of the crowd. As you've already seen, Jonathan has died a terrible, lingering sort of death in the battlefield between the opposing trenches, and William had been forced to abandon him, with a sweet, sad kiss on the mouth as his farewell. The survivor takes the ceasefire as his opportunity to find his brother's corpse, frozen beneath a slight crust of snow.

On making this discovery, William falls on the body, straddling it in a striking display of grief and loneliness (throughout the film, he's been writing voice-overed letters home to their mother, pretending both boys are fine and mean to come home). When another troop wanders along and offers a drink, William looks on him with such ghastly peculiarity that the friendly fellow backs off in a hurry. For all the pretty-to-think-so coming together of the other soldiers, under the auspices of shared "faith," this scene is frankly striking, the cost of war made awful. This boy, you know, will never recover, even given the tinkly magic of "O Little Town of Bethlehem."

And this is the lost opportunity of Joyeux Noël. It's hardly subtle in its debunking of the "romance" of war, as the men mostly appear to hate it and welcome the chance to leave it behind, briefly. They also face some due punishment from anxious, fancy-suited superiors for their "fraternization" with enemies. In an effort to explain themselves and perhaps head off severe reprimand, the Scottish and French troops write protest letters to the "bastards, sitting pretty, who sent us here to slug it out." (The Germans have no such illusion of reprieve: they're locked in trains and sent off.)

But at the same time, the movie succumbs to its own mythology. The more simplistic angle here has to do with just who is able to come together in this "everyone's really the same" revelry. Certainly few war zones today (or before, for that matter) would allow for such communal religious touchstones, given that religious belief is more often than not the impetus for war. Pressing the obvious point -- war is absurd, cruel, politically motivated -- Joyeux Noel overlooks complications to achieve another sort of romance.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image