Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas)

(2006) ** 1/2 Pg-13
116 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Christian Carion. Cast: Daniel Brühl, Guillaume Canet, Dany Boon, Diane Kruger, Gary Lewis.

With Joyeux Noël, French writer-director Christian Carion old-fashions the true story of the 1914 Christmas truce into sentimental melodrama. Clunky, heavily fictionalized exposition eventually yields to a suite of scenes set at one spot on the front. There, the operatic sounds of a German tenor meet Scottish bagpipes and lead to a laying down of arms for Christmas Eve and Day.

The opera singer is Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann), who—finding the lush comfort of a Berlin holiday party unbearable—takes his lady love (Diane Kruger) with him to the trenches, where he can entertain the troops on Christmas Eve. There, German commander Horstmayer (Daniel Bruhl), French lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet), and Scottish priest Palmer (Gary Lewis) mutually enable the unlikely cease fire.

Carion understandably conflates truce stories that took place all along the front (and invents others), the better to develop his international cast of characters. Unfortunately, he foregoes true grit and pushes too hard for dramatic effects, encouraging twitchy overacting and preachy overstatement (Ian Richardson, as a nasty bishop, chews off the biggest hunk of raw meat in a demonstration of misguided religious righteousness).

The story of Joyeux Noël is a genuinely inspiring one of shared humanity and the common denominators luckily, briefly found here in music and faith. But it's easy to imagine the story being told more effectively with less labor. The best of Joyeux Noël is understated: Bruhl's ruefulness, Canet's steady rationality, and Sprink's pithy summation "To die tomorrow is even more absurd than yesterday."

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