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Joyeux Noël

Directed and written by Christian Carion

Starring Benno Furmann, Gary Lewis, Guillaume Canet

Classification: 14A

Rating: ***

Early summer, 1914. The guns of August had yet to roar, but the children on both sides have already joined the fray. That's when Joyeux Noël begins, in the classrooms of the soon-to-be-warring nations, where we hear the chirping sounds of corrupted innocence - kids, loyal to King or Kaiser, reciting propaganda dressed up in the happy rhymes of patriotism. Same verses, different villains. What follows slogs through the mud to the end of that fateful year, and dramatizes an event where grown men would do something remarkable: For a few fleeting hours, they unlearned those lessons of childhood, laying down their arms to pick up their common humanity.

The event, of course, is the spontaneous Christmas truce that arose on parts of the front line, a true incident elevated by now almost to the status of myth. That may explain why writer/director Christian Carion has chosen to wrap his movie in the trappings of allegory. Quickly, once hostilities are declared, he sounds the allegorical roll call. From Germany comes Art in the voice of Nikolaus (Benno Furmann), a celebrated Berlin tenor fighting as a lowly private. From Scotland arrives Religion in the cassock of Palmer (Gary Lewis), an Anglican priest turned stretcher-bearer. And from France marches War itself in the uniform of Audebert (Guillaume Canet), a soldier's son risen to a lieutenant's rank.

Inter-cutting from one to the other, Carion shows us the threesome and their fellow combatants dug deep into the hell of the trenches. On the opposing lines, soldiers fight not just each other but also their shared enemies - the weather, the muck, the lice, the rats and the omnipresent spectre of death. Each side has its heavy artillery to unload long-range bombardment, its sharp-eyed snipers to dispatch singly, and its nests of machine-guns to obliterate entire companies commanded to die en masse. In no-man's land lies the fodder, unburied and endlessly re-killed by the ravenous cannon. The carnage and the absurdity co-exist on a grand scale, but we know this - these are establishing scenes, tragically familiar clichés of "The Great War."

The awful reality begins its mythic turn as Christmas approaches, and Nikolaus is called upon to give a concert for the officers. The venue is well behind the lines, far enough from hell that Anna, his lover, can be summoned from Berlin to join him onstage. Together, tenor and soprano, they perform in safety, and then make the independent decision to steal off into the darkness and take their act directly to the front.

There, on Christmas Eve, Art and Religion and War are holed up in their separate caves. All is quiet until Nikolaus raises his voice a cappella in a haunting rendition of Silent Night. The sound carries, and the Scottish bag pipes pick up the melody. Tentatively, the Germans and the Scots poke heads above the parapets, then shoulders, and finally they're out in the open. The French lieutenant confers with his opposite number on the enemy line, emerging with a decision to escalate this impromptu gathering into a temporary truce. All the trenches empty. Chocolate is exchanged, family photos are compared, and, to the strains of Ave Maria, the Scottish priest celebrates a mass attended by the faithful of every uniform.

Unfolding slowly, then building in momentum like the hymns themselves, this entire sequence is tremendously affecting. Its impact on us is a bit surprising because, at a glance, Carion appears to have done everything wrong here - he telegraphs the scene shamelessly; he taints it with the dubious tenor/soprano love interest; he weighs down a true-life phenomenon, extraordinary in itself, with all that added and unnecessary allegorical baggage. Yet still we're moved, deeply so, and continue to be when dawn comes and the truce extends into the clear light of day. Burial detachments work together in peace, giving bodies a proper grave. Crosses spring up. A ball is found, and war dissolves into sport.

In the aftermath, inevitably, awful sanity would regain its sway. Generals conspired with politicians to ensure that such a dire act of humanity would set no precedent - in each country, the participants received their just punishments. The French lieutenant got dressed down for "high treason" by his so-much wiser superior. The Scottish priest made way for a better instrument of the Lord, a proper preacher of slaughter with God on your side. And, in the film's poetic last frame, the culpable Germans found themselves transported to the Russian front in boxcars, where (with apologies to Dylan Thomas) they sang in their trains like the sea.