The spirit of the holidays is explored in Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas), a forced, feel-good tale that earned a nod for best Foreign Language film at the Oscars. The true story is about a groundbreaking truce that occurred on a World War 1 battlefield on Christmas Eve, 1914. For that one festive night, the German, French, and Scottish troops laid down their weapons and put their bloodbaths on a temporary hiatus. They decided that instead of mercilessly shooting at one another as they’d been doing for months, they would take a break and sing Christmas tunes together while getting sloshed.
The cease-fire would prove to be a landmark in history, but the movie fails to recapture the magic of the event. Like many other war pictures, it has an enormous, dizzying muddle of characters to follow. Among the 15 or so people introduced, the three lieutenants (Daniel Bruhl, Guillaume Canet, and Alex Ferns) should be a gripping depiction of peers divided only by enemy lines, but they never establish real personalities. Who are these men, outside of their rigid uniforms and numbing efforts to appear in control?
Likewise, the romance between a German tenor (Benno Furmann) and his beautiful singing partner (Diane Kruger) is clearly tacked on to add some sizzle to a male-dominated environment. Kruger may be a dazzling sight to behold, which I suppose is why she was cast as the female goddess in Troy, but there is no evidence of her having anything resembling talent. She can’t even believably lip-synch opera tunes, where she looks like a badly dubbed anime character trying to mouth English.
Joyeux Noel has an undeniable air of artifice, which distracts it from being the compelling story it should be. There are too few emotions and too many people offering one note performances. The most poorly developed character is a young Scottish man (Steven Robertson) who loses his brother William (Robin Laing) at the start of the movie. He walks around fighting back tears, writing fabricated letters home to his mother about all the great military feats his brother is accomplishing, and hoping to give him a proper burial. It is hard to feel for someone who died after barely being introduced, and a person with no discernible quality outside of mourning this stranger.
While I haven’t seen the movie A Midnight Clear, which is based on similar events, it’s bound to be superior to this version offered by Writer/Director Christian Carion (The Girl From Paris). Joyeux Noel seems like the type of perfect holiday film to turn audiences into puddles of mush and make them wipe their eyes on the nearest sleeve. But it is too calculated and detached to be more than a familiar war flick with gorgeous visuals masking a hollow core. It’s like an uninspired gift that you’ve already received and exchanged in the past, in favor of something you really wanted.