Movie review: French film exposes folly of war

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2006 - 2:10 PM

An inspiring true story about an impromptu truce during World War I embellishes the facts but captures the emotions.

The French drama "Joyeux Noël" ("Merry Christmas") is an inspiring history lesson overlaid with a sudsy soap opera. The core of the story is factual -- World War I soldiers called their own impromptu ceasefire, crawled out of the trenches and met in No Man's Land for a joint Christmas Eve service -- but the characters and some of the corny plot twists are pure fiction.

The film, written and directed by Christian Carion ("The Girl From Paris"), was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign-language film. It opens with a montage that takes on greater import as the story unfolds. Carion cuts from groups of people in the warring countries jingoistically crowing about crushing the vile foe. Later, the soldiers will come to realize that the people they've been taught to hate are not so different from themselves. They, too, have families, dreams and an unshakable dread that the next morning will be their last.

The bulk of the story takes place in a muddy field where French, German and Scottish soldiers have hunkered down in soggy trenches separated by only a few yards. (Even though the French and Scottish were allies, they remained separate units and often spoke disparagingly of each other.)

The trenches were so close that the soldiers could hear their enemies. It was the singing of Christmas carols that eventually brought the men together. When the German soldiers started singing, Scottish bagpipers joined in.

That might seem touching enough on its own, but Carion raises the sentimentality stakes by cooking up a plot development that is as hard to believe as it is untrue.

An opera star (Diane Kruger, speaking her native German) goes to entertain the troops. This is not like Bob Hope cracking one-liners for a thousand men far from the front lines. This is a woman in a fancy gown standing up to her ankles in mud 40 feet from enemy gunners, singing to 50 guys who wouldn't know an aria from a brick.

In any event, the Scottish and French soldiers are so taken by her bravery and lovely voice singing to the enemy that they want more. All guns will be put down until she is done singing and has safely left the battlefield.

Carion has argued that his movie is not intended as a statement on the war in Iraq. Perhaps not specifically, but it's hard to overlook its pointed message about the insanity of war. The military commanders on both sides are outraged when they hear about the truce because they fear that the men will lose the will to fight now that they know the enemy.

The story's factual weight compensates for the film's schmaltzy telling. We might grimace at some of the movie's machinations, but it's hard not to be moved by the humanity it depicts.

*** out of four stars

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