It’s nearly Christmas, and to celebrate, the writers of One Room With A View are going to present their arguments as to why their choice is the Ultimate Christmas Movie. After David argued for Die Hard, Steve for the sequel, Chris D for The Muppet Christmas Carol, Christopher P for The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Cameron for Olive, The Other Reindeer, Sophie tells us why Joyeux Noël is a movie to put on your must-watch list this Christmas.
And now for something a little different.
Unlike some, Joyeux Noël is not a film to watch at 3.10pm after the Queen’s speech, or on Christmas Eve, or even on Christmas Eve-Eve. Its setting – on the Western Front, in the first year of World War One – is no one’s idea of festive, and it’s true that war and loss don’t exactly have the feel-good-factor we associate with the season. Even the distributers released the film in November 2005, a full month beforehand, no doubt knowing that it wouldn’t stand up to the more traditional box office competition.
So why, then, do you find this film tucked into each consecutive Christmas schedule, usually on BBC Two, usually in the days running up to the 25th?
Joyeux Noël (released as Merry Christmas in the UK) recounts the unofficial ceasefire that bloomed along the Western Front during Christmas 1914. It doesn’t pick or choose a side – an international co-production, the six protagonists are one part Allied Forces, one part Central Powers: Gordon, a Scottish Lieutenant; Audebert, a French Lieutenant (and son of a general); Horstmayer, a Jewish German Lieutenant; Father Palmer, a Scottish priest working as a stretcher-bearer; and two famous opera performers, German Nikolaus and his Danish lover, Anna.
Each of them has been thrown into a war that was supposed to be over by now; a war where the heroic cavalry charges of old have disintegrated into the claustrophobic burrows of trench warfare. As Christmas Day approaches, the Scottish and French troops lead an attack on the German lines, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides and significant losses for our protagonists. So far, not so Christmassy.
On Christmas Eve 1914, that changes. As the Scots sing carols into the clear night air, opera singer Nikolaus, only a few hundred yards away in the German trench, replies, and his song is joined by a piper in the Scottish line. In response, Nikolaus goes over the top into No Man’s Land with the offer of a small Christmas tree, and the armistice is born. Soldiers wish each other Joyeux Noël, Frohe Weihnachten, and Merry Christmas. The men smile and sing and joke. Horstmayer returns a photograph that Audebert left in the German line during the attack. Father Palmer leads a Mass for fallen comrades.
Coming on the heels of the carnage we’ve seen, this fraternisation and its festive touches – the carols, the tree, the snow, the laughter – bring the values and ideals of the Christmas season into sharp relief, in ways that more traditionally festive fare might not.
On a fourth-wall note, the acting chops on display here are – literally – world-class, from Diane Kruger to Guillaume Canet to Daniel Brühl, and home-grown talent in Gary Lewis (unforgettable in Billy Elliott), Alex Ferns (proving he’s far more than a simple soap villain), and Steven Robertson. Brühl unsurprisingly stands out as German Lieutenant Horstmayer, a man clearly wrestling with his patriotism and morality, and for the audience there’s an added pathos to his character’s Jewish German heritage, whilst Canet again proves that he’s one of France’s most exciting actors. Every performance is a little treasure, combining to bring the events of this one Christmas into startling, stunning life. It’s a reflection of its quality as a whole – it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and Academy Awards.
Joyeux Noël isn’t perfect – there are occasionally moments of sentimentality or self-conscious moralising – but this is quickly muted both by its willingness to showcase the reality of life on the front line and the knowledge that this film is telling a true story – whilst the characters might be fictions conflated from different accounts, events depicted are closer to their real life counterparts than most “based on a true story” title cards can ever really claim to be.
The Scottish carols and bagpipe (yes, bagpipe) accompaniment that precipitates Joyeux Noël’s armistice reflect the facts – as German and British soldiers sang to one another from opposing trenches, artillery fell silent, No Man’s Land began to fill with soldiers, and gifts, souvenirs, and conversations were exchanged. Men who had been ready to kill each other instead played football together and laughed together and spoke of their loved ones together. Up and down the trenches, men lay down their weapons in the spirit of Christmas. What could be more proudly sentimental than that?
But it’s not until this moment of respite is over that the film’s underscoring of Christmas meaning really kicks in. As the troops are uniformly and harshly punished by their higher-ups and war begins again, the loss of this moment of joy and peace, and the injustice of the response of the generals, hits the viewer like a gut-punch. Our pain and our love and our sympathies are universal – for Scottish, French, and German alike.
With the centenary of the Christmas Day armistice on the doorstep (25th December 2014), a film like Joyeux Noël reminds us of the “true meaning” that gets harped on about so much – and no, I’m not talking about the baby Jesus, but about love and family and friendship and all the other sentimental rubbish we can be thankful for, whether we’re Christian or Muslim, Jewish or Jedi, atheist or just not that bothered. A film like Joyeux Noël is a tap on the shoulder for those of us lucky enough to spend the season with the ones we love.
The truth is that there will never be an ultimate Christmas film – new candidates step up and old ones fade away, and we’ll argue over which one is best until the mince pies are gone and the mulled wine has been drunk and we are drunker still. People look for different things – action and adventure, fantasy, laughter, surrealism, the warmth of nostalgia – and no film will ever capture each one for everybody all of the time. All we can do is savour our favourites and hope that other people will come to love them as much as we do.
Because for some? The ultimate Christmas film is one which creeps up on you unexpectedly; one which, in a quiet moment, amongst the roar and the noise, the laughter and the joy, the mistletoe and the wine, will make you pause, make you think, make you thankful, and make you remember.
What do you think? Is Joyeux Noël a film worth watching or is it just too dark for a festive favourite? Tell us what you think below!