France's entry for Best Foreign-Language Film at the Oscars this year is Joyeux Noel (in English, French, and German with English subtitles). Finely crafted by director Christian Carion, this heavy-handed enterprise tries to bring clarity to the no-man's land of World War I of those who participated and those wanting it to occur.
Set mainly in Northern France on Christmas Eve and Christmas in the first year of "The Great War", 1914, Joyeux Noel (translating as Merry Christmas) brings uplift to the escalating doleful austerity as enemy troops on the Western front take a break from closed-knit trench warfare. It appears to occur with little planning, and what is viewed by some to be radical shows the opportunity to reach across the gulf of the early stages of war.
The British are covered here by the Scots and the interplay of the tri-lingual cast helps to make the performances nourished. A truce will come about through the sound of bagpipes and then voices lip-synced by German opera tenor soldier Nikolaus (Benno Furmann) and his Danish diva soprano singing partner and lover Anna (Diane Kruger of National Treasure and Troy). The German trenches have lit Christmas trees as Nikolaus and Anna make their way across the battle zone.
The bulk of Joyeux Noel covers this cease-fire which proves to be emotional for those sharing a drink or playing football, even admiring photographs of one another's wives and girlfriends. The capable European cast includes Guillaume Canet, Alex Ferns, and a bearded Daniel Bruhl (Ladies in Lavender) as the field leaders for the French, Scottish, and German troops, respectively. Carion does a good job to maintain balance from the viewpoint of each of the camps, especially the Scots, as a tough-skinned priest (Gary Lewis of Billy Elliot) gives the unique congregation a special prayer on a cold, holy night.
The storytelling that draws from an isolated period of humanity, quite remarkable, is rather awkward, and the emotional buttons are pressed too hard in cloying fashion. The music, backed by the London Symphony Orchestra, will ingratiate opera fans. But, the story of Anna and Nikolaus doesn't prove as genuinely affecting as their plight and attraction would indicate. Eventually, such "fraternization with the enemy" puts the trench officers in a bad light with those in high command. And, the last act has a bishop speaking out about a crusade to the Scots and the Germans being sent by train to battle the Russians on the Eastern Front.
Still, the likeable nature of all those involved in Carion's artistic, pictoral account goes beyond the gaffes in dialogue and wit to underline the humanistic dimension of men neither heroes nor cowards.