Because it’s never too late for another Oscar rant: Joyeux NoÃ«l only served as France’s representative in the Foreign Language Film nominations because the rules for that category make U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famed “I know it when I see it” definition of pornography look positively cut-and-dried.
This, of course, is something of an assumption. Joyeux NoÃ«l is precisely the kind of film that all the academy branches gravitate towards anyway, because it is uplifting and it is set during a time of war and/or societal upheaval, and everyone can congratulate themselves on their collective act of conscience. But the Foreign Language branch wasn’t even allowed to consider Michael Haneke’s devastating CachÃ© (Hidden). In the first place, each country is allowed to select only one film as its representative, despite the possibility that more than one of the five best non-English language films of the year could come from one country. In the second place, despite the fact that CachÃ© is set in Paris, involves French characters and has Franco/Muslim relations as one of its dramatic anchors, the film was not considered “French enough” to be submitted by that country because writer/director Michael Haneke is Austrian'thereby violating academy laws of national purity that would make Hitler tap-dance with glee. CachÃ© could not possibly be any more French if it chain-smoked in outdoor cafÃ©s, wore a beret and insulted your taste in wine.
It is one of the more ironic turns in the long, ironic history of the academy that Joyeux NoÃ«l is quite possibly the least-French French film that could have been selected. Indeed, its entire raison d’etre is blurring arbitrary political dividing lines. Additionally, around one-third of its dialogue is in English. I don’t understand these people at all.
Loosely based on actual events of World War I, Christian Carion’s film takes place in 1914, alternating its perspective between three entrenched armies in an occupied portion of France. In a French regiment, Lt. Audebert (Guillaume Canet) muses over the pregnant wife he left behind months earlier, unaware whether his child is a boy or a girl. A regiment of Scotsmen includes a priest, Father Palmer (Gary Lewis), nervously serving as a stretcher-bearer. And on the German side, operatic tenor Sprink (Benno FÃ¼rmann) serves grudgingly, welcoming a furlough arranged by his soprano girlfriend (Diane Kruger) to perform for the Crown Prince.
But they all find common ground on Christmas Eve, when Sprink’s impromptu caroling finds accompaniment from Scots bagpipers across No-Man’s Land. It’s a small, chill-inducing moment, one of the film’s finest, and leads to a meeting in the middle between the enemy officers in which an entirely unofficial Yuletide truce is proclaimed. The soldiers pour over the top of the trenches at first in suspicious silence, but eventually they fraternize, exchange trinkets'and even worship together as Palmer celebrates a vigil Mass. The scene offers a strange, perhaps entirely accidental subtext in the light of current international events: How much different the world of warfare was when, even if opposing forces disagreed over politics, they shared a common language of church Latin and could all agree that Jesus Christ is Lord.
But Carion can’t avoid some awkwardness as he tries to balance presenting his interesting historical footnote with a why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along moral. When the German lieutenant (Daniel BrÃ¼hl) jokes about meeting up with Audebert when the Germans reach Paris, Audebert retorts, “You don’t need to invade to come by for a drink.” There’s both an edge and an element of preachiness to that moment, just as there is later when Palmer listens to a fire-and-brimstone anti-German sermon by his bishop (Ian Richardson). Carion delivers an effectively straightforward tale, but rarely finds anything particularly original or insightful to say about his characters, or about the madness of war, or about the disconnect between those who declare wars and those who fight them.
Carion’s one real inspiration comes in the character of Jonathan (Steven Robertson), a Scottish farm boy who follows his brother to the front only to watch his sibling killed in combat. The devastated Jonathan is not at all interested in the little multicultural Christmas party; he’s the one person for whom the battle has hit home. There’s more depth in his hardened scowl than there is in the angst of all the other characters combined'and more recognition that nationalist hatred isn’t always an abstract concept.
CachÃ©, meanwhile, brilliantly explored that idea for the entirety of its running time. There you go, Oscar'another irony for your ever-growing scrapbook.