Joyeux Noel tells the World War I story of how soldiers downed their weapons on 'No Man's Land' for Christmas Day, in a story first shown briefly in Oh! What a Lovely War, a story that apparently only came to light because of the ineptitude of the British staff responsible for monitoring all letters sent from the front. The film takes several stories that have been discovered about events and weaves them together into a tale of 'feel good' Christmas cheer that is presented in German, French and English to show the perspective from all three sides. If the stories seem a little far-fetched in places, the accompanying director's interview shows that some of the real life events depicted here (eg a cat shot for treason because it crossed between the French and German lines!) were even more ridiculous. The film does take one or two stories that don't have much to do with Christmas Day, but such divergence doesn't detract from the basic message of the film about how evil War is in all its manifestations.
It's not entirely comfortable viewing - War is messy after all - and the denouement, where all the units involved are disbanded and the events hushed up to avoid mass mutiny, makes for depressing viewing, but the basic message of hope for that brief period on Christmas Day is one that seems particularly relevant today, given what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. The film suffers from not having a central core, focussing instead on several different characters, most notably a Scottish vicar who finds himself at odds with his superiors over his actions on Christmas Day. A particularly nasty, vicious, racist sermon by a bishop towards the end of the film seems over-the-top and unnecessary, until one discovers on the commentary track that it is taken word-for-word from a real speech made by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time. Religion it seems has always had a lot to answer for!
The cinematography here is stunning, the multi-national cast uniformly excellent, and the transfer superb. All-in-all there's little here that warrants the dismissal Empire magazine have given it.
The extra's are limited to a rather cheap and cheerful question and answer session with the director and a commentary from director Christopher Carion. Ordinarily I'd mark the DVD down for the lack of a decent 'Making of' documentary, but the truth is that all the questions one naturally has at the end of the film ('Surely that scene was made up...') are dealt with perfectly in the director's interview. The commentary doesn't repeat the interview, although suffers from being a bit too dry, and is more about the real world events and the way they shaped the picture than the film itself.
I found Joyeux Noel to be a powerful, moving film, well presented on DVD. It has its weaknesses, mainly arising from the lack of a single strong narrative, but that's nit-picking when a film is as beautifully shot and as movingly told as this. Highly recommended!