Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)


Adeste fideles.

Adeste fideles.

(2006) War Drama (Sony Classics) Diane Kruger, Benno Furmann, Guillaume Canet, Gary Lewis, Dany Boon, Daniel Bruhl, Alex Ferns, Steven Robertson, Bernard Le Coq, Lucas Belvaux, Natalie Dessay, Rolando Villazon, Ian Richardson, Thomas Schmauser, Robin Laing, Suzanne Flon. Directed by Christian Carion

 The Holly and the Quill

We live in an imperfect world, one in which man’s inhumanity to man can be staggering. Yet sometimes when it’s least expected in conditions that would seem to be non-conducive to it, our higher selves show through.

In December 1914, World War I rages in Europe. Trench warfare is at its height which to modern audiences means nothing but picture this; seven to eight foot-deep trenches filled with soldiers and machine gun nests separated by literally the length of a football field under consistent bombardment by artillery shells. Men would be ordered periodically to charge out of one trench to attempt to take another; those that rose out of the trenches would be slaughtered horrifically, often caught by barbed wire where they’d be picked off by snipers or machine gunners. The casualty rates were staggering.

German tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Furmann) has volunteered to serve his country in uniform. His wife Anna Sorensen (Kruger), a Danish soprano, has been commissioned to perform for the Crown Prince Wilhelm (Schmauser) and is allowed to bring her husband from the front to perform with her. Sprink, disgusted by the comforts that the generals are enjoying behind the lines, resolves to return to the front to sing for the troops. Anna resolves to go with him which he is less enthusiastic about but eventually gives in.

Brothers William (Laing) and Jonathan (Robertson) enthusiastically enlisted when war broke out because they saw their lives as boring. Father Palmer (Lewis), the parish priest in their small Scottish village, goes with them as a stretcher bearer. During an assault on the German lines, William is mortally wounded and Jonathan must leave him behind to rot in No Man’s Land.

Lt. Audebert (Canet) is the son of a general (Le Coq) who has shown signs of brilliance as a commander in the trenches. He inspires his men who would walk through Hell for him, but he holds inside his own grief at having left his pregnant wife behind, not far from where the men are fighting – but behind German lines. His aide Ponchel (Boon) can almost see the farmhouse where he was raised from the trench he now fights in.

Horstmayer (Bruhl) is in command of the German trench and is Jewish. Following the Allied assault on his trench, he discovers a wallet with the photograph of a lovely woman. It belongs to none of his men and so he deduces that one of the French or Scottish soldiers dropped it during the fighting.

As Christmas Eve deepens, Anna and Nikolaus arrive and begin singing Christmas carols to the German troops. Their lovely harmonious voices carry through the crisp, bitterly cold night air across No Man’s Land to the enemy trenches. Moved by the songs that remind them of the season back home, Scottish pipers accompany the singers. Nikolaus is touched by this and impulsively carries a Christmas tree, one of thousands provided for the German troops by their command, out into No Man’s Land while singing “Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful).”

Following his lead, the French, German and Scottish officers also proceed out into No Man’s Land and agree to a one-day cease fire. The men slowly venture out into the cratered field between the lines and exchange chocolate and presents. Horstmayer returns the wallet to Audebert and the two find common ground in their memories of life before the war. Palmer celebrates Mass in Latin on the field which affects the soldiers profoundly.

The next day the soldiers engage in an impromptu soccer match while the officers agree to bury their dead on the day Christ was born. The officers and enlisted men assist each other in creating a field cemetery for their valiant dead. A connection has been made and friendships formed so that when the artillery shelling resumes, the men shelter each other in their trenches.

Of course when word of this remarkable truce filters back to the generals, they are furious and the Germans are mostly sent to the Eastern front. Ponchel, who had snuck back home disguised as a German soldier to visit his family during the cease fire, is shot by Jonathan after being ordered to do so by an officer who was offended by the truce. Before dying, he brings word to Audebert that his wife has given birth to a son.

Nikolaus and Anna, wishing to remain together, ask Audebert to take them prisoner which he does. Father Palmer is ordered back to his parish and the regiment of Scots disbanded in shame. A vitriolic bishop upbraids the troops, ranting about the intrinsic evil of the German people and reminding them that it is their duty to kill them all. Father Palmer, hearing this, removes his rosary in disgust.

The Christmas Eve truce of 1914 actually happened and that it did happen in those circumstances is nothing short of miraculous. While this is a fictionalized account of the cease-fire, many of the incidents depicted here are documented to be true.

The movie’s one mistake is that writer-director Carion takes a story that really needs no embellishment and lays on the sentiment a little too thickly. He is trying to make a point, I believe, about the nature of faith in an atmosphere of cruelty and horror and that point tends to be drilled into the audience ad infinitum until there’s a tendency to say “OK, we get it. Can you please just tell the story now?” Even despite this, France submitted the movie as their entry in the 2007 Academy Awards field for Best Foreign Language Film where it was selected as a finalist although it did not win.

Fortunately, Carion makes a lot of really good decisions. Rather than showing the story from one perspective, he tries to get all three from a microcosmic stretch of trenches. He weaves together the stories of the main participants skillfully not only showing how unique they are but also how similar. This is a more delicate balancing act than you can imagine.

While Kruger is probably the best known actor to American audiences, Canet, Bruhl and Furmann all fare the best in my opinion. They give impassioned performances which I suppose given the background isn’t a hard sell. If they descend into occasional over-sentimentality that is the fault of the script and not so much of the actor.

We often in our zeal to defend our individual nations forget that at the end of the day are all one people who are more alike than un-alike. It is those similarities that bind us together, that give us hope that one day we can stop slaughtering each other and learn to help each other. Perhaps it’s a pipe dream but on this Christmas Day one can’t help but hope that one day it comes to pass. As the events of December 24, 1914 in a war as hellish as any ever experienced in human history proves, we have the capability inside us all to say “enough” and lay down our weapons, even if for only a brief moment.

WHY RENT THIS: A powerful story based on actual events. Exceedingly well-acted, particularly by Canet, Bruhl and Furmann.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally schmaltzy and sometimes overly repetitive about its message.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of war violence and a little sexuality with some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The MPAA originally gave the film an “R” rating but when film critic Roger Ebert protested it was eventually reduced to a “PG-13.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: An interview with Carion discusses the real 1914 truce, which elements were used for the film and how they were chosen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.7M on a $22M production budget; the film wasn’t a box office success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: War Horse

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Hyde Park on Hudson

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Fanny, Annie and Danny


Fanny, Annie and Danny

Jill Pixley and Jonathan Leveck ponder the joys of family gatherings.

(2010) Dramedy (Self-Released) Jill Pixley, Carlye Pollack, Jonathan Leveck, Colette Keen, George Killingsworth, Nick Frangione, Anne Darragh, Suzanna Aguayo, Nancy Carlin, Don Schwantz. Directed by Chris Brown

To utilize a bit of a Dickensian mash-up, Christmas can be the best of times and the worst of times. Family get-togethers can be lovely and heart-warming – depending on the family. Some families should never get within a thousand miles of each other.

Fanny (Pixley) is a developmentally challenged woman living in a group home. She works for a candy factory and is obsessive-compulsive about washing her hands. She also practices her recorder at six in the morning, which really annoys her fellow residents in the home. She mostly keeps to herself, losing herself in her beloved horse books.

Annie (Pollack) is in the midst of planning her wedding, 18 months hence, to Todd (Frangione), a good-hearted stoner who has yet to find a job that isn’t beneath him. Annie is a bit of a Bridezilla, obsessing over details of her wedding to the point where a little valium might not be such a bad idea. However, any suggestions in that arena would most likely be met with shrill disapproval. She works as a dental assistant for Dr. Bob (Schwantz), whom she makes uncomfortable not only for her attempts to manage things she shouldn’t be managing but also for her perhaps inappropriate affections.

Danny (Leveck) is a successful band manager who makes a little extra by skimming off of his fledgling bands. When the accountant mom of one of them discovers his chicanery and proclaims he owes the band twenty grand, he flees Los Angeles for a family gathering at Christmas, one he has studiously refused to attend for years.

Edie (Keen) is the reason why Danny has stayed away. Overbearing, abusive and controlling, Danny (whom she calls “Dan-Dan”) is the apple of her eye; her other children (particularly Fanny) and her husband are merely worms in the apple. She screams at her family in a voice undoubtedly roughened by years of smoking, drinking and screaming at her kids. For Edie, her way is the only way – any other suggestions to the contrary can be shoved with all due haste where sunlight can’t be found.

Ronnie (Killingsworth) is a Vietnam vet who sometimes likes to look through his pictures of his years in the military that he keeps in a tin box in the shed. He is a bit broken, possibly afflicted with some mild dementia but remains kind-hearted despite constant bullying by his wife. Generally, he just tunes her out as much as possible.

Edie is preparing the “perfect” Christmas dinner – which is held a week before Christmas because the actual holiday itself stresses Edie out too much. Fanny’s candy factory is closing and the kindly owner (Darragh) has given Fanny a $9,000 severance check which she is supposed to deposit in the bank, but she misses her bus and arrives after the bank closes. Devastated by her loss, she goes to her sister’s house only to find Annie out. Todd instead feeds her a couple of beers (not the best idea for someone taking medication) and listens sympathetically to her story. Annie’s arrival, however, signals the end of any sympathy – Annie has a distinct lack of any compassion where her sister is concerned, possibly due to having to care for her for too long.

All this is going to come to a boil when the family arrives at the home where Edie rules. Annie will attempt to curry favor from Danny in direct competition with Edie (who doesn’t appreciate anyone coming between her and her son) and Ronnie will discover his wife’s ultimate cruelty – and Fanny will wash her hands of all of it.

This is the third feature of San Francisco Bay Area filmmaker Chris Brown, who is also an accomplished songwriter and wrote the songs for the movie (including the oddball Christmas songs that Edie forced Danny to sing with her). Incidentally if you can find his album Now That You’re Fed and particularly the song “All My Rivals,” do go for it, the music is amazing.

He also wrote the script and collects a group of characters who pass through our gaze generally undetected when we see them on the streets but once you get to know them, you find them anything but bland. In that sense, they are very realistic – think of all the people you pass by without truly seeing them. We are all visible to the naked eye yet invisible to the gaze of others. Brown captures that aspect of our society very nicely and it adds to the realism of the film.

Pixley does some amazing work as Fanny to the point where you wonder if she might not have some of the issues she’s portraying. She’s that spot-on in her performance. Frangione also does an exceptional job, taking a character that is not necessarily sympathetic early on and in a matter of a minute or two makes him so. To Brown’s credit, he doesn’t write Todd as a Cheech and Chong clone but imbues the character with a personality that is more than a guy who smokes dope. Not all stoners are all about the dope.

The movie succeeds in painting a picture that is both funny and tragic. The children are all scarred by their mother’s behavior and while at times you want to punch Edie in the face, she is also ultimately a victim of her own behavior and if you look past the ugliness, you see someone who has been bitterly disappointed by life. The movie is compelling from the opening moments to the shocking last scene. It is not always easy to watch a family implode but Brown makes it funny and sad, like seeing a car full of clowns in a head-on collision with a semi.

REASONS TO GO: No matter how bad your family dynamics are, you’ll feel better about them after seeing this family. Organic performances and a clever script.

REASONS TO STAY: Mama Edie is such a horror show that people might actually cringe.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a smattering of foul language and a bit of drug use.

HOME OR THEATER: Look for it at a festival near you.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: More from the Florida Film Festival