There is nothing tinsel-cheery or laugh-out-loud funny about Merry Christmas, which is based on reports of a cease-fire on Christmas Eve of 1914 when World War I was being waged at the Western Front. Various German, French and British soldiers left their rifles in their trenches and franternised with each other in the spirit of Christmas. Unsubstantiated reports also document several other contingents of military personnel consorting with their foes during the Yuletide season. One of the more curious accounts of this truce even included references to a football match between these soldiers aside from the singing and mingling outside of their trenches where the fallen soldiers of the war still lay frozen and decayed.
Straight from writer-director Christian Carions own emotional attachment to World War I, which was cultivated as he had grown up in one of those German-occupied French territories where great battalions had met, this film pays homage to the soldiers and to their families that fought and experienced the ravages of the first Great War. It is also Frances official entry for the Foreign Language Film Oscar for 2006 when it opened domestically with 1 of the countrys best box-office openings in recent history.
Revolving around 7 main characters from different backgrounds and allegiances, the film makes these characters the representation of the soldiers of the nation that they hail from. Very much an ensemble cast, it consists of Diane Kruger, who plays a famous Danish soprano. She fights all odds to be in the frontlines with the one she loves, a German tenor (Benno Frmann) who was called up when the war begun months ago. Rounding off the German camp is Lieutenant Horstmayer (Daniel Brhl), the man in-charge whos rigid in his command of the trench. Hes an emblematic soldier who respects determination above all else. As most Christmas films demand, he becomes the character who goes through the biggest change as we discover his backstory and his ambivalence to the occupation of Paris.
Rounding of the rest of the main characters are the Scottish priest cum medic (Gary Lewis) whos drafted along with the rest of his parish when war was declared; themerry christmas 2 company is led by Lieutenant Gordon (Alex Ferns). The French contingent includes Lieutenant Audebert, brilliantly portrayed by Frances leading actor, Guillaume Canet, and the Lieutenants orderly and the films main comic relief, Dany Boon.
The brainchild of Carions for almost 3 years after his debut success with The Girl from Paris, Merry Christmas manages to be as poignant in its description of camaraderie and love as its brutal in its dispiction of wars effects in a soldiers life and callous government officials who send young men with families off to war with no hesitation. This isnt just a holiday movie that warms hearts to the sounds of the bagpipe or the soul-piercing allure of the opera, as the film doesnt hold back in its criticisms of war and governments that participate in them. Throughout the movie, we see the injustice that soldiers are put through even by their superior officers. Its made even more depressing when we see them finding solace and a momentary respite from the urgency of war in the company of their enemies.
Each element of Christmas is also represented through each of the nation thats entrenched, seperated by a field of dead soldiers and a frozen mire of mud. Music is offered by the German camp through its opera singers, prayer and cheer is contributed by the Scots while the French extends their hand with, what else but, food, namely chocolates and champagne. An armistice is called as each commanding officer from the each ditch agrees to a 2-day cease-fire, agreeing that the war will not be won during Christmas. The gathering of the troops in no-mans land where their dead lay and exploded shrapnel is scattered, doesnt just end at the merriment of drinking as each soldier realises that they are no different from the adversaries they have been aiming at for months as they start exchanging addresses. The message is clear as we understand that the soldiers are fighting for something, not against something else.
Each characters own insecurites about the war are revealed through conversations with one another as we find out that the tenor and soprano are at odds. The tenor feels obligated to stay with his regiment while she wants to run away with him to the Dutch border to start anew. We also see the French lieutenants anxiety about his pregnant wife and the Scottish priests struggles with his faith as his sees those around him fall with no mercy even from their superiors. Finally we see the ghosts of the past around them literally buried as graves are dug in unison for the fallen on Christmas morningmerry christmas 4
As aptly put by the Scots in the film, The war can wait, but the war wont wait for us, the aftermath from the nights festivities are cut short when the Germans paratoopers start dropping shells on enemy trenches. Fortunately, its a Christmas movie and we see each infantry unit taking turns in sheltering their respective nations targets in their own trench. However, this doesnt end at the frontlines as each nations government and their superior officers discover this act through readings of personal letters. They label the events of the night as high treason among the troops and they deplore the lack of gravitas in the manner in which Christmas was celebrated. Each of the involved units is disbanded and each superior officer makes sure that theres no love lost between troops as they are indoctrinated again on the subject of the evils of the enemy. The scene is similar to the movies opening when 3 boys of different nationalities recite the warcry of their nations in a classroom.
Guillaume Canets Audebert is the most sympathetic character in the entire film. When first introduced, he looks adoringly at his wifes photograph just before leading his men into war. As he loses his wallet along with the photograph, he also loses his faith in the war and his drive for what he was fighting for. Wanting to know if he has a son or daughter, he finally manages to put his agony to rest through a favour from his German counterpart.
Although laced with ancillary moments of humour after the the films slow build-up to the frontlines, it borders on contrived and fantastical storytelling as the rapid change of heart and loathing for orders to stay vigilant are ignored. While it is a melodrama with a primary function to warm hearts during the holiday season, its also a war film which unfortunately pulls punches at the end to ensure a happy ending for most of its characters.
With French cinema serving up another movie set in the toils of war since last years A Very Long Engagement, and once again doing it superbly as the message it conveys will be clear for anyone from any country to recognise. This film will be a timeless addition to the holiday cinema fare. Even if the movie offends a few moviegoers who might see this as a grotesque misrepresentation of war, it does exactly the opposite as it pays tribute to the soldiers in 1914 that managed to carry out a miraculous act in that instance when sanity prevailed over the chaos of war.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
In hindsight (and through the awesomeness of DVDs), I feel that the film could have been more poignant at the midway mark when the soldiers were bonding and less emphasis should have been given the German tenor and soprano. Although sweet, they took almost a quarter of screentime to build up to their respective storylines. I would have loved to get to know more about the Scottish perspective as well as Audebert's life pre-war.