Am I complete pessimist? A total cynic? Have a bloodlust? By all reasonable causes I should really like Joyeux Noel. Luckily this isn’t a periodical review, because I would feel obliged to give it a positive one. Much of the elements that contributed to its Best Foreign Film nomination are on full, and obvious (one problem I have with it) display:
There’s an overwhelming optimism, a sense of the beauty of the human spirit, fine cinematography (more on that later), fine acting (more on that one, too), strong writing. Hell, there’s even social commentary in here. That’s a phrase I use a lot, and one I’ll cover in more detail on my next post on Fish Tank.
But still, I don’t like this film. And here are the many reasons why…but first a quick plot summation. World War I. Three trenches in very close proximity to one-another. Germans, Scotsmen, Englishmen. On Christmas Eve a tenor by the name of Sprink (Beno Furrman) sets off an unlikely celebration between opposing forces, where all armies abandon their bunkers and drink, celebrate mass and basically become friends.
The film seems to not only speak to the human spirit, as I mentioned above, but in some ways harken back to the “good ole’ days of war,” when ceasefires were observed and human life was valued.
Now the “but.” The film is too glossy for its own good. One egregious moment that, unfortunately takes place at the height of the impromptu ceasefire has Sprink’s wife Anna (Diane Kruger), also a singer, entrancing the masses with her heavenly voice. Her face is flawless. The wind blows her hair back. The voice is obviously dubbed – HUGE issue for me in here. The cinematographer turns the trenches into a candlelit cathedral. This is too false. Okay, okay – counter-argument is that it’s supposed to be suddenly surreal as it represents a moment that is transcendental and basically impossible. But I don’t buy it. It strikes a false note (finally, a good pun in here?). All I could think of were two things: “who’s job is it to operate the fan that is clearly just off-screen,” and “how, with the budget that they obviously had, could they not do a better job with the dub/ADR?” I’m distracted, and I’m not only talking about production value. This is war. If you’re going to interrupt the horrors of war don’t suddenly turn things into a Howard Hawks musical number.
Which leads me to another issue. This film plays on the ideas of the musical number as wish fulfillment and idealism. It goes like this: war is interrupted by a literal musical. From that point on, friendship and chivalry abound. So, as in any classical musical, the music itself leads to narrative progression and an idealized outlook. Now, when I wrote about Frears’ Prick Up Your Ears I complimented his revisionist musical approach. I feel quite the opposite here and it all has to do with the context. Frears used the musical to contrast with the theatrical theme (among other reasons). Carion wants to use it to = the human ability to overcome odds. But this is undermined by the fact that, for the film to work, the musical sequences have to be taken as literal. There is no myth of spontaneity here. These happen. Therefore – because of this – the switch from harsh war to glossy musical is all the more problematic.
Is Joyeux Noel a comedy? It plays like a satirical, comedic drama, but it seems caught in between its genres. In some sense it wants to be a Stalag 17, but missing, and missing very badly, is Wilder’s keen eye that gives us characters who are multi-dimensional. There are crude attempts to keep the war present amidst the Christmas-unity. One Scot character whose brother has been killed is the main source of this attempt. He looks around angrily. Buries his brother. Refuses to fraternize. And writes letters to his mother lying that his brother is still alive. But he’s really the exception to the general population and therefore feels plugged in. It’s as though the script was written and someone said, “wait…not everyone can like each other. I mean, let’s be serious guys. This is war.” And everyone else is like, “oh, right right right.” So they pop our Scot in there – problem solved. Not so much.
The sayings “too good to be true” and “truth is stranger than fiction” are appropriate here. Supposedly this is based on true events. I didn’t do any research to see how accurately it’s portrayed. Nonetheless, truth does not necessarily mean that it is believable. This is the case of something being “too true to be good,” and “fiction more believable than truth.”