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'Noel' is a didactic Christmas card

Between the movies released there and the slightly older ones that made it here, 2005 was a pretty terrific year for France. Jacques Audiard's ''The Beat That My Heart Skipped," Michael Haneke's ''Caché," Agnes Jaoui's ''Look at Me," Philippe Garrel's ''Regular Lovers," Arnaud Desplechin's ''Kings and Queen," and Claire Denis's ''The Intruder" were major works, any one of which would have made a sterling French submission for the foreign language Academy Award. (Audiard's movie almost made a clean sweep of the Cesars.)

But why submit a masterpiece when you can turn in a mediocrity? The French understand their Hollywood audience: Schmaltz sells. To prove it, they gave Christian Carion's ''Joyeux Noel" the nod, and the Academy made it a nominee. To be fair, the film was a Cesar nominee for best picture, too. It's a heart-warmer, a well-meaning movie that sets out to wring a modern message (and preferably some tears) from a famous but largely forgotten moment in history. Set in 1914 at the start of World War I, ''Joyeux Noel" tells the story of how Scottish, French, and German factions carried out a brief, happy cease-fire in time for Christmas.

In the interest of symmetry, each army forms a side of the movie's equilateral triangle. But Carion's fidelity to narrative geometry leaves him with a redundant and hopelessly blocky movie. It jumps from the French to the Scots to the Germans, telling a similar story several times. The thrust of each telling is that the war has not robbed its soldiers of their holiday spirit.

On Christmas Eve, Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann), a German tenor turned soldier, bravely walks around the trenches singing ''O Little Town of Bethlehem." The Scots play the bagpipes, and soon all are enjoying champagne and chocolate, listening to the yuletide sermon of a Scottish priest (Gary Lewis) and later to a song by Sprink's lady love Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger), a Danish star of the Berlin opera, whom he has brought to the front lines. Kruger also played Helen in ''Troy"; she appears to enjoy roles that inspire fighting men to drool.

The soldiers exchange photos of their wives, two soldiers bicker over the nationality of a cat, and the following day a soccer match is played. Amid all the harmonizing, the film's one genuinely intriguing character, a Scottish solder played by Alex Ferns, falls down over the corpse of his best friend.

Carion goads us to tear up with a well-done sequence of mass burials and the reading of the soldiers' letters. But the real dramatic meat of the movie comes after the truce evaporates and its consequences are clear. Not until the key members of all three crews are chewed out for their humanist escapade do you realize that relatively young men were calling the shots. Their castigators are elders who arrive to restore the bellicosity almost as a matter of tradition.

The priest's English higher-up goes so far as to insist that Germans good and bad be killed as a preventive ideological measure. This sounds reminiscent of the movie's unsubtle opening, in which three schoolchildren (one French, one Scottish, one German) stand in front of a blackboard and recite the lessons of the war.

The movie's determination to showcase the momentary goodness of three nations produces scarcely any interesting filmmaking, storytelling, or characters. Carion has taken one of the more astounding and surreal moments in 20th-century history and turned it into a moral greeting card. It's hard not to admire the film's sense of nobility. It's harder not to find the movie dull.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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