"Merry Christmas" (Joyeux Noël) By Ramiro Cristóbal
Screened at the Cannes Festival in the Official section outside competition, a French candidate for 2006 Oscar and awarded at 50th Semana de Cine de Valladolid Festival (Spain) 2005, Merry Christmas (Joyeux Noël) is the second film by the director Christian Carion, a filmmaker born in Cambrai (France) and whose first film, One swallow in the spring… (Une hirondelle a fait le printemps) (2001) received an audience of more than two and a half million in his country.
In these two films, which make up the short filmography of Carion, the main topic is that of reconciliation. In the first film (One swallow…) the subject is the reconciliation between two ages, an old man and a young woman, and the positive effect this encounter has on the rest of the characters of the film: the girl’s mother, the man’s friend etc. who, for the first time in their lives, try to find a true path towards mutual understanding.
In Merry Christmas, the reconciliation is impossible between human beings of the same generation, young men of different countries, languages and cultures, driven to become deadly enemies thanks to an intense and perverse propaganda of the three powers: army, church and the state officials in charge of education.
The film, in fact, opens with sequences in which German, English and French children recite poems – odes to glory of their own countries, proclaiming physical elimination of their secular enemies. Throughout the film, sermons and harangues are heard as preached by bishops and generals calling for the death of their enemies: ‘…young and old, men and women, good and bad’.
However, the true protagonists of Merry Christmas are a group of German, French and Scottish soldiers lost somewhere in France, fighting from their muddy trenches for a piece of devastated land and a ruined farm. The director, Christian Carion, shows to us these men with a scientific interest, almost as an entomologist, but never devoid of tenderness and compassion. The diary of the French lieutenant, with meticulous comments and drawings, is reminiscent of a zoologist or a botanist book full of precise observations.
These men, turned into real killing machines by the school, the church and the army were, in their earlier days, full of joy and enthusiasm for a promising glorious destiny. The reality of freezing nights in mud, the fear, the bayonet fighting, the daily sight of mutilated or dead fellow soldiers has transformed their lives into a ceaseless stupefying horror. But somewhere deep in their hearts they still believe in the hope of a possible escape alive and a return, in the near future, to their lives of ‘before’.
It is around this fundamental game of survival, of love and hate, death and life that revolve many anecdotes of the film: from a tenor singing Silent Night to a cat taking messages of hope between the trenches. This is a warm and moving moment of fraternity between enemies that will end, as no other way seems to be possible, with the condemnation by the commanders in chief. The tender bud of reconciliation born on Christmas Eve of 1914 will be crushed by the blood of millions of death at Verdun and on the Russian front.