Joyeux Noel a.k.a Merry Christmas (2005) attempts to retell the true story of a group of German, Scottish and French soldiers as they decide to cease fire on Christmas Eve of 1914 and play a game of soccer. Trapped in the frozen trenches of the Western Front the soldiers would lay down their weapons, drink champagne, and listen to the angelic voice of a Danish opera singer.
French director Christian Carion's follow-up to the charming Une Hirondelle a fait Printemps a.k.a The Girl from Paris (2001) arrives on DVD in North America as one of last year's failed contenders for the coveted Oscar statuette (the film was selected by the French Film Academy to represent France at the Oscars). Mixing facts with fiction Merry Christmas follows closely four characters as they struggle to endure madness.
Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet, Vidocq) dreams about the day when the war will finally end and he would be able to see his newly born son. With France only a few hundred miles away strange ideas begin to torment Audebert's sleep.
Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann, The Princess and the Warrior) has abandoned his singing career in order to serve his country. His life is now a disaster. Nikolaus misses his long time partner with whom he once shared the stage.
Two Scottish brothers (Robin Laing and Steven Robertson) are elated by the news that war has broken out. They quickly sign up as volunteers and head to the front. What they uncover quickly crushes their enthusiasm.
It is hard to deny that Christmas Eve isn't the cynical-reviewer's wish come true. In the midst of flying shells and bodies being torn apart soldiers celebrate the birth of Jesus. They also exchange wishes that brothers not enemies are likely to direct at each other. Sound pretentious, even laughable? Maybe, but as the history annals reveal the unthinkable did indeed happen.
Part of the reason why this film works to perfection probably has a lot to do with the fact that Christian Carion appears to have been well-aware how vulnerable his story is. So, instead of banking on empty anti-war slogans Merry Christmas veers off in a completely different direction showing how in 1914 ordinary people struggled with madness. Also, unlike other war films where the line between enemies and friends is quickly drawn without any hesitation in Christmas Eve the enemy everyone fights appears far and away from the battlefield.
The resounding message Christmas Eve delivers is also quite unconventional, most certainly given the film's premise it is a bit odd to see how a Scottish priest's speech uses faith to plant the seed of evil. This isn't a message that celebrates the power of faith, it loudly denounces it. As a result in Christmas Eve words and action often play a fascinating game of self-denial.
Long ago I began questioning how noble it is to kill another human being so that good triumphs over evil. Not because I do not believe in it, I do, I just know that my faith isn't strong enough to accept and justify murder. And if religion and faith often go hand in hand together then I guess Christmas Eve is the perfect film for those of you who have never questioned their morality.
How Does the DVD Look?
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and enhanced for widescreen TV's Merry Christmas looks fabulous. Blown through a digital projector the print reveals steady and lush colors and excellent contrast. The progressive image is tight to the frame and edge-enhancement isn't something you will be concerned with. Furthermore, it appears that SONY have used a master that simply shines as I could not spot even the tiniest speck or scratch that every once in awhile pop-up here and there. This presentation is near flawless.
How Does the DVD Sound?
Equally impressive!! Presented with a mix of German, French, and English the audio quality is top-notch. Crystal clear and easy to follow dialog is what we have here. Furthermore, the music which plays a prominent role in this film is treated remarkably well-the rears are active and provide the film with a very natural feel (a good example would be the "live" performance at the trenches where silence is treated exceptionally well). Finally, SONY have provided optional English, Spanish, and Portuguese, subtitles.
In addition to a gallery of trailers what you will find on this disc is a short interview with Christian Carion in which he talks about the history behind this production. He also comments on specific elements from the story (the importance of the children in the beginning of the film, music, etc). There is also a commentary which SONY have ported from the French disc, also with Christian Carion, in which he deconstructs the film step by step commenting on specific scenes, events, etc. I encourage those of you interested in finding whether or not the events described in this film really happened to listen to this commentary as Mr. Carion goes in great detail explaining what historic data was used (and where it was found) to produce the final story.
Far from being a conventional anti-war picture (this is certainly a character-driven drama not a propaganda-film) and even farther away from being a lush visual spectacle (those of you hoping for a Un long dimanche de fiancailles copycat will be disappointed) Joyeux Noel surprises with originality and rich characters well worth the Oscar nod. Unfortunately for the French producers I think that the Academy and plenty of film critics with notable exposure saw a film with hidden political agenda. I am not surprised!!