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Issue Date:  March 31, 2006

Reaching across the boundaries

'Joyeux NoŽl' follows WWI Christmas truce; multiracial 'Crash' didn't deserve its Oscar

By JOSEPH CUNNEEN

It’s too late to wish readers a Merry Christmas, but the just-opened Joyeux Noël is a French movie that might make you feel joyous even in these times. Based on a real happening during World War I, it follows events behind the Christmas Eve truce of 1914, when French, Scottish and German troops suddenly laid down their arms to fraternize. The situation invites sentimentality, but director Christian Carion keeps that to a minimum. Even cynics may grow misty-eyed when “enemy” troops slowly emerge from their respective trenches in response to “Silent Night” and “Adeste Fidelis.”

The film doesn’t “explain” the event, but it provides a suggestive background. A well-known Danish singer, Anna Sörensen (Diane Kruger; singing voice provided by Natalie Dessay), is invited into the area to sing for the crown prince and the German officers. She insists they bring her lover, the German tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann), now serving as an ordinary soldier, to sing with her. Afterward she tries to persuade him to desert to safety with her, but he insists on illegally returning to sing for the troops, and she goes with him. When the Germans break out with the strains of “Stille Nacht,” the Scots answer with their bagpipes, and over the German trenches no more than 100 feet away hundreds of Christmas trees can be seen ablaze with light. Cautiously both Scottish and French soldiers climb up into no-man’s-land and join the Germans in singing “Adeste Fideles.” The Scottish chaplain celebrates a Mass in which all participate, and Anna Sörensen sings a beautiful “Ave Maria.” The German lieutenant Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl) concedes that Christmas means nothing to him -- he is Jewish -- but he has been deeply moved by the singing.

The next day, opposing troops begin talking to each other, sharing photos, bits of chocolate and even champagne; soon there is an impromptu soccer game. Finally, they help bury each other’s dead, who have been rotting between the lines.

“Joyeux Noël” can’t compete with famous war movies in displays of bloodshed but it brings to life the troops’ love of cats, home and their wives’ pictures even while they are enduring senseless violence.

The gulf between war leaders and ordinary soldiers is made painfully clear. The latter are severely punished after the truce. But the Anglican bishop’s denunciation of gentle Father Palmer (Gary Lewis) as a traitor to the church, accompanied by his call for mass killing in the name of freedom, seems extreme. Overall, “Joyeux Noël” celebrates the decency of ordinary soldiers, allowing us to wonder at this spontaneous outbreak of peace.

Crash was a surprise choice for the Oscar for Best Picture this year. I had failed to see it, affected by an advance review that suggested it was only a belated plea for better race relations in Los Angeles. When I finally went, I found the characters overly manipulated to fit its simplistic formula that there’s both good and bad in everyone.

“Crash” was directed by Paul Haggis and written by Mr. Haggis and Robert Moresco. Its language is tiresomely raw, perhaps appropriate in a movie laced with traffic accidents. An opening speech by Graham (Don Cheadle), a black cop, sets the tone by claiming that people crash into each other out of a desperate need for human contact. Next, an upper-class white woman, Jean (Sandra Bullock), screams racist epithets when her SUV is hijacked at gunpoint by two young black men.

A large number of stories are related by just such accidental encounters, making events hard to follow. The film’s most powerful scene shows a prosperous black couple, Cameron (Terrence Howard) and his wife Christine (Thandie Newton), pulled over for no reason by Ryan (Matt Dillon), a racist cop. Ryan uses his gun to humiliate Cameron and raises the tension by doing a body search on Christine, suggestively fingering between her legs while her husband is left to look on in silent fury.

Later, however, we see Ryan’s concern for his elderly sick father and his underlying courage when he rescues the wife he had earlier humiliated just as her car is about to burst into flames. But reliance on such violent contradictions limits its ability to explore character. This tendency is clear in the story of Ryan’s original police partner, Hansen (Ryan Philippe), who is appalled at Ryan’s conduct but afraid to make a complaint. Later he acts heroically to save Cameron from other policemen. But near the end, he picks up a young black man to give him a lift. An argument develops, involving racial stereotypes, and after accidentally killing his passenger, he abandons the body by the roadside.

Meanwhile Rick (Brendan Fraser), the state prosecutor and Jean’s husband, is worried as to whether a complaint about his stolen SUV will alienate the black vote, or if failure to do so will lose the law-and-order vote. We also meet Farhad (Shaun Toub), an Iranian grocer, victim both of anti-Middle Eastern prejudice and his own jaundiced temperament. But Mr. Haggis twists situations for dramatic purposes; tragedy is averted by a mistake that is misinterpreted as a miracle.

The director gets first-rate work from his actors, especially Matt Dillon and Don Cheadle, but “Crash” didn’t really deserve its Oscar. Mr. Haggis wants its overheated fantasies to be seen as parables, but the film’s mix of paranoia and pseudo-redemption is too inflated to be convincing.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular film critic. His e-mail is SCunn24219@aol.com.

National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2006

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