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A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT (R) (2004)

2003 Productions, Warner Bros., Tapioca Production, TF1 Films Productions

Official Site

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Producers: Jean-Louis Monthieux

Written by: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Guillaume Laurant; Sébastien Japrisot (novel)

Cast: Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Dominique Pinon, Clovis Cornillac, Jérôme Kircher, Chantal Neuwirth, Albert Dupontel, Denis Lavant, Jean-Pierre Becker, Jodie Foster

Rating:


In 1991, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (along with Marc Caro) finished Delicatessen, the brilliant feature film that established his career. In that same year, he also encountered a novel, Un Long Dimanche De Fiançailles, by the celebrated French writer, Sébastien Japrisot. Jeunet was entranced and dedicated to making the novel into a film, but Warner Bros. had also seen the filmic potential of this novel and had secured the rights. It took 10 years and the worldwide success of the film, Amélie (2001), to place Jeunet in the position to fulfill his dream.

The story concerns five French soldiers in 1917 of World War I. They have been court-martialed for cowardice, evidenced by their respective self-mutilation in the hope of escaping the hopeless combat of trench warfare, and they are sentenced to the certain death of being thrown into the no-man’s land between the French and German lines. Each has a unique story. One in particular, Manech (Ulliel), is a young man with a very special fiancée, Mathilde (Tautou), awaiting his return. She refuses to accept the reports of the death of the love of her life and begins a personal investigation. What unfolds is an intricate tale of human strength and weakness and of the battle not between France and Germany but between hope and reality.

Trying hard not to give anything away, perhaps I can tell you what NOT to expect from this film. First, it is not a war film, though it does include harrowingly graphic battle footage. The narrative takes a non-linear progression following the personalities involved, which keeps the graphic violence and mayhem nicely compartmentalized into ever more effective episodes that illustrate a point, but never revel in the war. Nor is this film a classic love story, though it has some of the most hauntingly romantic scenes you are ever likely to see in a film of any genre. For convenience, it might be better to think of this film as a detective story, only it’s not concerned so much with the killer—the war—as with the various victims. The film also happens to be an effective anti-war film, but only coincidentally so. Though the tragic suffering and waste of war is ever-present and is effectively underlined by the costs to human relationships that are recognizable and sympathetic, the film does not dwell on this significance. It has an even loftier goal.

The title, A Very Long Engagement, implies a certain lighthearted humor that you would expect from the director of Amélie. Let me spare you this disappointment now; this film is not a comedy. Understand that I do not do this to be mean, to spoil any surprise, nor to belittle the film, but to try to help. I’ll admit that I have such a love of Jeunet’s earlier work, I kept looking for some perverse humor that just wasn’t there. This was a distraction. You simply can’t hold that against any director that the overwhelming and unique charm of their previous works might haunt a new endeavor. Perhaps if you are prepared, you won’t make this same mistake that I did. This is not to say that the film is unrelentingly drab; it is dynamically beautiful, celebrating the primal coarseness of life. There are many humorous moments, but they most often are found to serve the serious themes of the movie.

There is no mistaking that this film is the work of a master, or more properly, several masters. One can start with a massive cast that has no weak link. Jodie Foster gives a stunning and economical performance in a role with challenges that are almost beyond belief. Angelo Badalamenti has contributed a score that I think one of his best ever. The cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel is full of gorgeous and rewarding detail while staying in a tone that editor Hervé Schneid blends effortlessly with historical footage. Véronique Melery has lovingly done incredible set decoration worthy of a Jeunet film, and Madeline Fontaine has done period costumes that are (I cannot vouch for accuracy) compelling. Jeunet, in all of his films, uses detailed environments that are so complete as to create what some might call an alternative universe. A spiritual reality seems to arise from the gritty common objects that fill each frame. Here, all of the artisans of this crew have worked to endow that spiritual reality with a singular purpose.

The answer revolves around Mathilde. Audrey Tautou’s wonderful performance, at first glance, may seem to be rather one-dimensional. I think that this is because she represents a character with a singular purpose, and intentionally so. She gifts Mathilde with a determination that transcends endearing, going right on past disturbingly obsessive to being quasi-religious, positively thematic. What is the answer? Of course, that is something that you will have to discover for yourself, not because I don’t want to tell you, but because I don’t really know. I have some suspicions, but I could be wrong. Like other Jeunet films, multiple viewings of A Very Long Engagement will help. Rather than being irritating, I think that this is the mark of a probable masterpiece, and I’ll probably regret not giving this film that fifth star.

—Steven Harding

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...


Mike Doughty



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