- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

That war business is no good, no good at all. Watching “Joyeux Noel” (“Merry Christmas”), a movie about the famed Christmas truce during World War I, one can’t help but be reminded of this idea — and little else — over and over again.

The movie is little more than an old-fashioned plea to stop the violence and just get along. It’s a simplistic fantasy that ignores the larger complexities of war in favor of a belief in basic human goodness. Still, as far as fantasies go, it’s an appealing one, and “Joyeux Noel,” despite being drenched in sentimentality, often delivers its naive ideas with a light touch. It’s the feel-good war movie of the year.

Set in the trenches of occupied France on Christmas Eve in 1914, the film, which is based on true events, follows a wide cast of characters from the French, Scottish and German forces as they participate in an unlikely holiday truce. After months of vicious trench warfare, the factions call it quits for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, sharing drinks, family photos and traditional songs. They play card games and sports and even participate in a unified Mass — all while they’re supposed to be killing each other.

The movie opens with a montage of French, Scottish and German schoolchildren extolling the glory of “exterminating” their foreign enemies. By the time it segues into an opening credits sequence consisting of country panoramas and overblown orchestral puffery, there’s little question that the audience is in for two hours of shameless emotional sucker punches.

From there on out, it hits all the cloyingly sweet notes one might expect. All of the soldiers in question have a memory of home and a bittersweet story to go along with it. A grumpy German commander complains that he must deliver Christmas trees to the front lines. Eventually, the warring sides go so far as to shelter each other from mortar fire. To no one’s surprise, enemy soldiers become aware of all sorts of cute symmetries. They all love their families. They’re all tired of fighting and wish their commanders weren’t so hard on them. They’ve all taken fondly to a cat that roams between the trenches.

The shared anger at the higher-ups translates into a typically misguided spirit of disgruntled egalitarianism, in which the ruling national elites promote war for their own selfish reasons without concern for the troops on the ground. The movie even goes so far as to blame the Catholic Church for propagating war and hatred, showing a priest preaching the God-ordained virtue of killing to a group a soldiers.

Still, despite its head-in-the-clouds outlook, “Joyeux Noel” is not entirely without charm. There are numerous amusing moments. The acting is uniformly strong. Most of the characters are appealingly drawn. Certainly the film’s central tenets — that people are essentially good and that war is the product of a few callous individuals — are nice, if unrealistic, ideas.

Unfortunately, “Joyeux Noel” has little to offer beyond these nice, unrealistic ideas — and they are as saccharine as a tray full of Christmas cookies. As tasty as a tray full of Christmas cookies might be, it’s no substitute for a real meal.

**1/2

TITLE: “Joyeux Noel”

RATING: PG, for brief nudity, violence and sexual situations

CREDITS: Written and directed by Christian Carion

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www.sonyclassics.com/joyeuxnoel/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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