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Joyeux Noel - When Stories Clash

By Edmond Nixon, C.Ss.R.

It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble now because we do not
have a good story. We are in between stories
- Thomas Berry, C.P. “The Dream of the Earth”, 1988

JOYEUX NOEL (Merry Christmas), DVD 2005
Written and directed by Christian Carion

When Paulist Fr.‘Bud’ Keiser was looking for a director for Romero the movie (based on the life of murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero), he looked for someone who was not a Catholic (someone distant from the story) and someone who could reveal the soul of the characters.  Keiser found his director in Australian John Duigan.

Contrastingly, although Christian Carion does a splendid job in directing Joyeux Noel, somehow he struggles to depth the characters, and to the viewer it feels as though he is too close to the story.  It lacks therefore some of the crispness that makes a story shine forth with its own power.

Still, Joyeux Noel is a well made movie with a stellar international cast.  In its own way it is captivating in spite of its faults. Viewers will have at the back of their minds that the story is based on real events that occurred in the trenches of World War I, Christmas 1914.  That fact probably allows the viewer to transcend some of the film’s faults. For all of these, Joyeux Noel was nominated for the Academy Awards, the Golden Globe Awards and the BAFTA Awards of 2006.  It is a DVD well worth viewing.

As I pen these lines, archaeologists in France are excavating the presumed burial sights of Australian soldiers at Fromelles.  World War I is never far from Australian consciousness.  As a people we possibly understand the futility of that conflict better than some others, for though our homeland was distant from the muddy trenches of the western front, our home-heart was partly forged there.

A suspicion for inherited stories that lived among the convicts and which was played out in the larrikinism of the young diggers who set off for Gallipoli, Beersheba, Fromelles, Pozieres, Bullecourt,
or Villers-Bretonneux has, because of those same conflicts, been cemented into the Australian psyche.

And that brings us to the real juice in Joyeux Noel. The movie takes the viewer into a place where the real artillery is not that of nation against nation but story against story.  Small human stories turn up powerfully welded to mega narratives. Lesser stories, the stories of nationalism, governance styles and past glories, powerful at the time as they were, are in this movie left swinging in the breeze.  These latter stories are bedded neither in the poignancy of personal stories nor the overarching meaning of mega narrative. In hindsight we know those stories to have been on life-support, even as they wielded power in their death throes during World War I.

Out of the cutting personal stories of the trenches there arose an existentialism that marked the mid 20th Century.  At the same time within the mega narratives there evolved a need to reconsider and explore their own credence and their potential for humanity. The former flourished and moved from the coffee bars and into literature, movies, music and homes. The latter partly played out through the League of Nations (1920-46), the United Nations (1945 to the present), and Vatican Council II (1962-65).

Joyeux Noel is based on incidents that took place during World War I.  On Christmas Eve, 1914, as the movie relates, German, French and Scot troops came out of the trenches and shared Christmas together.  They played football, swapped treats from their supply lines and parcels from home.  They told stories of their families and shared photographs. Towards the end of this ceasefire, they even shared each others’ trenches to avoid the artillery poundings from their respective armies.

All of this took on a common language with the singing of carols and the celebration of Mass. The air was still with realisation as in the distance the canon of other units, devoid of realisation, pounded on into the holy night.

The story of Christmas spoke of the vulnerability of the human condition, not least there in the trenches.  It spoke too of an unfathomable love that can penetrate any hell-hole.  Music filled the air, the Scots on their pipes, the Germans singing, the French setting it in style.  It was a moment where faith and art became pillars of a bridge that allowed enemies to ‘Passover’ into fraternity and accompaniment. “You don’t have to invade Paris to pop around for a drink”, remarked the French commander to his German opposite.

The way the story pans out in Joyeux Noel, reveals that the challenge dealt up to the lesser stories of nationalism and past glories also begins to be dealt out to the mega narrative itself.  There is a scene during the celebration of Christmas Mass where a German soldier approaches a stressed-out Scot on the periphery of the group.  He introduces himself as one not given to piety, and he invites the Scot to join him for a drink. It is a scene that signals a coming challenge to the overarching story of Christianity in the West.

The movie leaves the viewer with the thought if only the overarching narrative could have reinvented itself, not in its essence but in its telling, it could have made all the difference.  A further scene shows that opportunity slip away there and then, and in a way that prefigures the story slipping from Europe’s masses after the War, and certainly by the end of Word War II.

It is a scene where the bishop for the military vicariate visits the lines and berates the priest chaplain for what he did on that Christmas night celebrating Eucharist for the gathered troops of the three armies. The priest replied, “It was the most important Mass of my life”.  In response the bishop shames the priest.  He tells the priest he is not asking the right question, and asks him is he “really suitable to remain among us in the house of the Lord”. 

The bishop then addresses the troops telling them they are ‘the defenders of civilisation” and that the enemy “does not think like us”. He instructs them to proceed in war so this will not have to happen again.  It is a moment where the mega-story aligns itself to the lesser story and in a sense it is lessened as a story in its own right because of it.

Finally, the mail censors checking the troop’s letters home to their families discover what has gone on over Christmas.  They see for themselves the stance taken by their troops with regard to the enemy.  That the enemy was not like them, not human, that spell is now broken.  They know their ‘enemy’ to be just like themselves. Just as the bishop before them, so the high command shames the officers for what has happened.  One general says, “All this is now meaningless, will you shoot them like rabbits having supped champagne with them?”  They split up the troops into other units and send them to other fronts. 
Most were dead within weeks.

The theme music for the movie is based on the Scot’s “I’m dreaming of home”, which in the movie they played on their pipes that Christmas, 1914.  Before New Year 1915 the Germans who participated in the fraternity of that Christmas were boarded onto cattle cars headed for the Prussian front. As the train pulled out the unseen troops are heard humming “I’m dreaming of home”. So much for the old nationalistic stories!

A transition comes upon the Western world with the onset of the Enlightenment. It comes to a head at the time of World War I. It is played out largely in the clash of stories. Joyeux Noel, together with other works of faith and art, highlights this changing story.  I recommend the DVD of Joyeux Noel to you for that reason.

It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories.

Hymne des Fraternisés (I'm dreaming of home) - Philippe Rombi

From a poem of Lori Barth Soundtrack of the Movie 'Joyeux Noel'