A Very Long Engagement
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   G U R E V I C H

It seems like a cliché that a talented artist would start out trying to out-avant-garde everybody else and then, age and maturity kicking in, settle into a more conventional mode. But rarely does the transition pass smoothly; in retrospect, critics and audiences are bound to either sigh relief, "Finally, he put these tricks behind him," or nostalgize about his youthful quirks and bemoan the staid realism of his later work. One exception to this rule may be French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who first became known to us by his Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children (both in collaboration with Marc Caro)—two film experiments that, pardon the cliché, revealed a vision like no one else's. Then he went solo and made Amelie [review], a film that deserved an Oscar and every conceivable Grand Prix in the Charm category, while Jeunet managed both to keep this charm from sliding into mawkishness and preserve his artistic vision. Now, with A Very Long Engagement he has made a quantum leap into maturity—an epic that is intricately (perhaps too intricately) plotted, yet—once again—never loses the visual virtuosity of his earlier work.

The story is based on a novel by Sébastien Japrisot, a hugely popular, late French writer, whose work is little known in this country and could not be more conventional. In 1917, five French soldiers are court-martialed for self-mutilation and dispatched to Bingo Crepuscule, a frontline area, where a sadistic officer pushes them into the no-man's-land under German fire, to see which of them will survive. Jeunet's straightforward pacifism is perhaps more justified with a subject like WWI. Only after the clouds of mustard gas settled, people started asking themselves why exactly they had been fighting—and historians still have not settled the issue either (see Barbara Tuchman's March of Folly, for one). Moving from debating platform to a visual mode of expression, Jeunet, aided by a 50-million-euro budget, does for WWI what Spielberg did for WWII and Coppola did for Vietnam. Never before did trench warfare seem so real—the mud, the stink, and the blood. WWI was quite unique in that the offensive technology had outpaced the defensive one; or, to put it simply, both sides had the firepower, the tanks, the planes, the chemicals—and practically no way to defend the troops: no Medivacs, no Kevlar, and only the most primitive medicine. Never before had death been so massive, so ubiquitous, so sure to come.

It is all there in Jeunet's film, over and over again, and no wonder that the five soldiers despair to come out alive and decide to shoot their hands off in the hope of a discharge. (Actually, one of them does it accidentally, but in the absurdity that ensues it does not seem to matter.) The five are plain Frenchmen—a carpenter, a farmer, a village pimp, all of whom long ago ceased being impressed by patriotic slogans. Besides, each has left behind a wife or a girlfriend … one of whom, named Mathilde, just plain refuses—three years after the event—to accept that her fiancé, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), is dead. Luckily for Manech, she is played by Audrey Tautou. From Jeunet's previous film we know that for Amelie—uh, Mathilde—simply because she is played by Mlle. Tautou—surrender is not an option. This girl believes in simple things: "If the mailman comes before I count to six, then Manech is alive." A film based upon this kind of logic may make a hardened critic shake his head; but I can't imagine an audience who, from frame one, would fail to share Mathilde's stubborn belief that her fiancé is alive. Actually, it is common sense: a two-hour-plus movie that ends with Mlle. Tautout's heroine's hopes dashed easily counts as a crime against humanity. That's why we stay in the dark room this long: to see the smile of triumph on Mathilde's face. This is The World According to Jeunet; take it or leave it.

And so brave Mathilde, shrugging off the skeptics (i.e., everyone else) and dragging along her polio-crippled foot, embarks on a journey of discovery: what really happened at Bingo Crepuscule? She hires a cartoonish detective named Pire (in French, "worse"), she places newspaper ads, she tricks her lawyer and Army bureaucrats: there is nothing Amelie in Love—I mean, Mathilde in Love—would not do. Omnia vincit amor. To be fair, plotting is not Jeunet's forte. Perhaps he was too respectful of the novel. Each of the five soldiers gets a treatment as individualized as a two-hour movie can afford. Still, in the post-battle chaos, the survivors appropriated the dead men's personal items, including their dog tags, which is exactly what makes Mathilde's investigation such a rigorous jigsaw puzzle and what made this reviewer lose track of who had traded identities with whom. More likely, it is a cultural thing: I was told that the novel is so popular in France that viewers needed no extra clarification.

But then everything needs not to be taken as intended. Visually, the film is overpowering. The battlefield mud seems to ooze from the screen, the French countryside is as sun-drenched as a Renoir painting—and, aided by digital technology, Jeunet also meticulously reproduces postwar Paris, and, just as it did in Amelie, his camera forgoes objectivity for our heroine's view of the world. Now he (or his material) is too serious for throbbing neon hearts or showers of tears, but every shot is subordinated to her screen presence, making us privileged eyewitnesses to a great love story. There are sepias and ochres, sometimes on a split screen, where one half bleeds into another… a veritable art gallery of film images.

Essentially, it is a Jeunet-Tautou film, chock-full with production values—superb camera work (Bruno Delbonnel) and production design (Aline Bonetto) and a bravura music by Angelo Badalamenti (of Twin Peaks fame)—so the numerous members of the supporting cast are easy to miss, especially with their period-proper facial hair. It includes both actors who by now count as members of the Jeunet Repertory Company, having been in all his films, such as Dominique Pinon and Ticky Holgado; and French actors unknown in this country. But there are also cameos by André Dussollier (A Heart in Winter), Tchéky Karyo (La Femme Nikita), Elina Löwensohn (Schindler's List, among others), and—last but not least—a thoroughly delightful turn by Jodie Foster. But what ultimately stays with you are the movie's images: bodies helplessly writhing in the mud and Tautou, determined and luminous, fighting for her love.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Warner Independent Pictures
Movie Web site: A Very Long Engagement



Photo credits: © 2003 Productions/Warner Bros. France 2004.
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