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May 10, 2008

Movie Review – A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de fiançailles) (2004)

by Master Pillow

Rich gorgeous cinematography coupled with a steely yet ultimately intimate portrayal of a woman bent on finding her lost fiancé by French thespian Audrey Tautou makes Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s World War I romantic spectacle A Very Long Engagement a thrill to watch even though the script drags for far too long and makes the almost criminal mistake of introducing far too many characters for the audience to properly keep track of.

Told in two separate parts, one of which takes place after World War 1 featuring a lame young woman who suffered from polio during her childhood named Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) who is convinced that through some sort of divine destiny that her fiancé has not perished and thus embarks on an epic investigation to discover his fate. While on her quest the film frequently flashes back to events that happened during the last days of World War 1, specifically how five soldiers, including Mathilde’s fiancé Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) were caught trying to self-mutilate themselves and gain discharge from the army. Instead of succeeding they are court-martialled and sentenced to death on the battlefield.

Stripped of their weapons the condemned are sent into no man’s land, the area of the battlefield directly between the French and German trenches and are left as fodder for the Germans to snipe at. Obviously, if they all got mowed down we wouldn’t have much of a narrative so director/writer Jean-Pierre Jeunet fashions a structure not unlike a good murder mystery which features multiple points of view of the events of that fateful day. Think a more linear and less subjective device like Akira Kurosawa used in Rashomon or the dreadful Vantage Point for reference.

Convinced that her fiancé has survived such an ordeal Mathilde begins her investigations by hiring a detective named Germain Pire (Ticky Holgado) yet she cannot merely be passive so she embarks on a simultaneous effort to try and piece together the evidence on what happened that fateful day. During her travels she meets with a large cast of characters made up of French army survivors who witnessed the five condemned men traverse the battlefield. Each of them only knows a small slice of the overall picture and part of the film’s wonder is watching how every point of view finally builds to a coherent history of what really occurred.

The movie itself is very deliberately paced but there’s an altogether strange disconnect between the sheer brutality of the battlefield which is inundated with bone crushing explosions and a suffocating atmosphere of doom and the incredibly sweet and idyllic life that Mathilde lives in at her country home. Jean-Pierre Jeunet is well known for his wonderful use of colour and here he doesn’t disappoint as each frame of the film is literally dripping in his distinct style yet in some ways this fractures the movie into two tonally dissimilar storylines and sometimes the movement between time periods is jarring. Watching Mathilde and her almost fairy tale setting filled with voluminous golden tones suddenly cut to the wet dank greys of the battlefield makes the audience feel as if they are watching two totally different films.

Adding to this odd disengagement is Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s reliance on similar themes and whimsical attitudes that seem carried over from his previous film, Amelie also starring Audrey Tautou. Amelie was a wonderfully light-hearted film with a ton of voice over work and a main character that was quirky and eccentric but always filled with a joie de vivre. Whatever levity that the film included just added immensely to the charm of the production yet here with this exceedingly horrific storyline set firmly in the brutality of trench warfare it doesn’t quite fit to see bodies literally disintegrate with direct artillery hits and then suddenly switch gears to Mathilde playing idiosyncratic mind games with herself much like children do whenever they partake in, “he loves me, he loves me not” except in her case she bases it instead on, “he’s alive or he’s not.”

I had the opportunity to watch Amelie and A Very Long Engagement almost back to back over the course of two days and to say the two films are very similar is not an understatement as nearly the entire cast of Amelie carries over to the latter film. Making the distinction even clearer is that most of the ensemble is playing the same character archetype such as the priest who carries himself with a kind of weary yet cranky attitude who was the bossy grocery store owner in Amelie who, guess what, was also cranky with a loud mouth.

Still, similarities to Amelie aside, the one constant that is paramount between both films is Audrey Tautou who carries the entire film on her elfin shoulders. Yet this is not a winsome tale of love but a ponderous and aching heartache that director Jean-Pierre Jeunet sometimes mismanages. For all her hopes and fears he basically orders Audrey Tautou to underplay much of the movie keeping her emotions internalized for most of the running time. It’s a testament to her acting chops that she manages to pull off deep emotion such as her inherent anger and frustration that she has towards the French government for doing an X-Files and covering up plenty of mistakes by military personnel and I think another critic summed it up best that she would have made an excellent silent movie actress as her facial expressions and body language make up for the reams of incredibly dry procedural dialogue that she has to spout.

Simply put, in the hands of a lesser actress A Very Long Engagement would surely collapse precisely because the mystery is far too convoluted and makes the same mistake as other potboilers in forgoing key information until well into the third act. When will filmmakers ever learn that audiences want to be more involved in the actual case or else they’ll quickly lose interest as the story drags on with too many red herrings or tangential elements that are there to only lead viewers astray?

With so much emphasis on Audrey Tautou the rest of the cast is essentially ignored with only the most basic of setups possible. This less than desirable look at other characters short-changes the movie’s emotional wallop as everyone she meets is just there to either console her or propel the plot forward with additional information as to her investigation. Clearly the focus is on Mathilde but it wouldn’t have hurt to provide colourful supporting characters to buffet the narrative. The only other performer to get any sort of meaningful screen time is Jodie Foster as Elodie Gordes the long suffering wife whose husband is sterile yet concocts a plan to get her impregnated by a comrade so that the army will discharge him if she sires a child. Initially repulsed by his plan Elodie relents but finds herself being attracted to his friend as the sparks fly. Before this movie I had no idea Foster was fluent in French and I made the wrong assumption that she was dubbed but it really is her speaking to which I give great kudos as she sounded like a native speaker with both fluency and great emotive delivery.

Make no mistake though the narrative here is purposely dense so much so I almost lost track of who was who. I’ve been watching and reviewing movies for years and even I had to take pause at a couple of points in the narrative to mentally remember why Mathilde was trying to find a specific person and why exactly they were so important to find. It’s almost as if I needed a Cliff’s note cheat sheet with a relationship chart to keep track of all the various people involved. When Mathilde initially starts on her quest it is amusing to watch as she meets different personalities and not only what they saw on the battlefield but also discovering about their own subplots and life stories that sometimes don’t have any bearing on the main narrative thrust. However, multiply these by a factor of ten and sometime in the second act I began to get a bit antsy that the movie was beginning to really grind and get bogged down in too much unnecessary exposition.

Technically the film is a tour de force with bone crushingly violent scenes showing the sheer inhumane conditions of World War 1 filled with Jeunet’s freely flowing camera and some nifty CG aided shots of 1920 Paris. The attention to detail is astounding yet it never really calls attention to itself except for the aforementioned dichotomy between the present day investigation and flashback sequences. The score by Angelo Badalamenti is appropriately soaring but it gets a bit too bombastic at times almost as if he is trying to wring too much emotion during certain key scenes that it borders on overkill.

A Very Long Engagement is rated a very hard R for graphic violence, sexual relations and sometimes gruesome subject matter yet it is a romance at heart and stays firmly within the fairy tale belief that love conquers all. Without giving away the intricacies of the plot I will say that the ending is probably going to polarize the audience with some feeling it is spot on considering all that has occurred while others might feel a certain sense of being cheated as Jean-Pierre Jeunet throws in from out of nowhere a hoary old Hollywood cliché that resets much of the emotional resonance. As for myself I plainly thought that it works but part of me hoped that the screenwriters would not have been so lazy. Without reading the book I have no idea if this is the way it exactly ended on the written page yet even if it did my opinion would not have changed.

With a running time in access of two hours, A Very Long Engagement does seem like a very long film but exquisite production design and the always luminescent Audrey Tautou are enough to keep most viewers invested in the outcome. With a tighter more focused screenplay it might have become a true classic and a first rate follow-up film to Amelie but instead it misses the mark and ends up being a decent production that could have been something special.

*** out of ****

2004, France, 133 Minutes, R, Warner Brothers
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Story and Adaptation by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Guillaume Laurant
Based on the Novel by Sébastien Japrisot
Creative Executive Producer Fabienne Tsai
Associate Producer Francis Boespflug
Executive Producer Bill Gerber, Jean-Louis Monthieux
Original Music by Angelo Badalamenti
Cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel
Film Editing by Hervé Schneid

Mathilde: Audrey Tautou
Manech: Gaspard Ulliel
Sylvain: Dominique Pinon
Bénédicte: Chantal Neuwirth
Pierre-Marie Rouvières: André Dussollier
Germain Pire: Ticky Holgado
Tina Lombardi: Marion Cotillard
Ange Bassignano: Dominique Bettenfeld
Elodie Gordes: Jodie Foster
Benjamin Gordes: Jean-Pierre Darroussin
Benoît Notre-Dame: Clovis Cornillac
Lieutenant Esperanza: Jean-Pierre Becker
Six-Soux: Denis Lavant
Bastoche: Jérôme Kircher
Célestin Poux: Albert Dupontel

© 2008 The Galactic Pillow

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