A Very Long Engagement Review
When watching A Very Long Engagement (Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles), it's hard not to imagine director Jean-Pierre Jeunet sitting over your shoulder and every so often whispering in your ear, "You will cry now!" One of the most common criticisms levelled against is previous film, Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain, was that every single moment was carefully coordinated to elicit a very specific emotional response from its audience. Depending on your perspective, therefore, you will either love of hate this latest offering, which re-teams Jeunet with his lead from Amélie, Audrey Tautou, for another decidedly melodramatic and decidedly French love story.
We begin in the middle of the First World War, in Bingo Crépuscule, a front-line trench, where five men have been condemned to death by the French army for self-mutilation in an attempt to avoid combat. Rather than simply shooting them, they are sent into No Man's Land and left to fend for themselves between the French and German trenches. One of these soldiers is Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), the fiancé of Mathilde (Audrey Tautou), a young woman stricken with polio. Despite it being officially stated that all five of the condemned men died, Mathilde is sure that Manech must still be alive - if he wasn't she'd know. With the grudging help of her aunt and uncle (Dominique Pinon and Chantal Neuwirth) with whom she lives, Mathilde sets off to discovery what really happened at Bingo Crépuscule.
The critics have done a good job of portraying this as "Amélie II", and for the most part they're not far off the mark. Jeunet is on familiar ground here, evoking many of the same techniques that he used to great effect in his previous film. This immediately becomes clear from the very first scene, where we are introduced to the five condemned men via a voice-over combined with flashbacks detailing various seemingly unimportant quirks of their personalities. What doesn't become clear until later, though, is that these idiosyncrasies actually have a part to play in this story, and as the film progresses Jeunet and co-writer Guillaume Laurant do an extremely impressive job of weaving them into the ensuing mystery. This is probably the only area in which A Very Long Engagement can truly be considered to be superior to Amélie, since in every other aspect it does a commendable job of matching its predecessor without surpassing it.
Like Amélie, Jeunet and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel paint each frame in a dazzling array of colours, the predominant hues here being yellow and brown, which give the film a sepia-like tone recalling the monochromatic photographs of the period. There is even a strange beauty to the scenes in the trenches and No Man's Land, in spite of all the dirt, death and destruction. Jeunet is undoubtedly a master of visuals, and if his style here is more subdued than in Amélie, then that is entirely appropriate to the subject matter. This time round, Jeunet employs the musical talents of Angelo Badalamenti (who previously scored his collaboration with Marc Caro, The City of Lost Children), who serves up a tasty dish of melodrama that is noticeably more thematic than much of the composer's other work.
Unsurprisingly, it is Audrey Tautou who carries most of the film, and she does a very good job of it, although she admittedly has the odds stacked in her favour with her angelic looks and the plot, which presents Mathilde as someone who can do no wrong. Audiences will also doubtless spot Jodie Foster in a small but pivotal role, and to be honest I am somewhat divided as to whether this was an excellent choice of casting or an extremely poor one. Certainly, she performs her part impeccably as always, but she is so recognizable and in a sense out of place in the fantasy universe Jeunet has deliberately created that the sudden appearance of such a famous face is more than a little distracting. Oddly enough, this is not a problem for the Jeunet regulars who crop up throughout the film in various roles - even the least eagle-eyed of viewers will recognize Dominic Pinon and Urbain Cancelier - as, despite the fact that they can immediately be spotted and tied to various other characters in Jeunet's filmography, they are firmly established as a part of a very specific world.
The film is shamelessly manipulative, invoking dreamy photography, a heart-rending score, the plight of poor Mathilde's disability (which never seems to play much of a role in the plot, other than to isolate her and to invoke pity from the audience) and, of course, Audrey Tautou's big brown eyes, in order to carefully stage-manage the audience's emotions, but all this trickery is handled with such skill that it seems unfair to hold this against the film. The outcome is, of course, never in any real doubt - as Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, there is only one possible ending that would not have audiences tearing up their seats in a rage - but when it comes it still manages to be emotionally affecting and I challenge anyone not to feel at least something as Angelo Badalamenti's score kicks in at that moment. A Very Long Engagement is not as perfect (or near-perfect) as Amélie, and indeed the more cynical viewers will doubtless tear it apart for brazenly manipulating the audience's emotions, but the end product is one that should appeal to anyone who enjoyed Amélie. This is a film that firmly places the audience in the passenger's seat throughout and prohibits any detours from its director's route plan, but sometimes there is nothing wrong with that.
Personally, I was slightly disappointed by the visual presentation. It's in its correct aspect ratio of 2.39:1, and is anamorphically enhanced, but it lacks the level of detail I was hoping for. Like many Warner and New Line titles, it seems over-filtered (fine detail is hard to come by, and grain is all but non-existant) and also has some noticeable edge enhancement, continually visible on the borders between the letterboxing and the picture area, and on the outlines of the actors' heads. That said, in all other areas the transfer is faultless, with excellent encoding and a beautiful reproduction of the colours.
The only audio track provided (in addition to the commentary) is a French Dolby Digital 5.1 mix which, while good, is not everything that it could be. While the rears are heard from time to time, they are used sparingly, and it does seem that a number of excellent opportunities to put them to excellent use, such as the various battle scenes, have been squandered. More troubling, however, is that the sound overall has a slightly tinny quality to it, something which is most noticeable in the dialogue: it's perfectly clear and easy to understand, but it lacks depth and bass.
Spread across two discs, Warner have treated us to a nice array of bonus materials. Disc 1's main feature is an Audio Commentary with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Presented in French with English subtitles, Jeunet opts for a serious approach and discusses all manner of aspects of the production, although with a focus on the actors and technical details. It makes for an interesting listen (or, for many, read), and it is obvious that Jeunet cares a great deal about his film.
Also included on the first disc is an absolutely cringeworthy US Theatrical Trailer, as well as a 30-second Soundtrack Promo showcasing moments from Angelo Badalamenti's score.
A Year at the Front: Behind the Scenes of A Very Long Engagement begins the second disc. A one and a quarter hour documentary, it takes us from where it all started, the drawing board: Jeunet's past as a maker of animated films is clear in that his story development seems to come out of storyboarding rather than scriptwriting per se (indeed, the film does not actually have a "screenplay" credit, just story and dialogue). We are taken through all the stages of production right up to the final elements of post production and music mixing, and it is a fascinating journey. Rather than going down the usual path of combining narration with on-camera interviews, the makers have opted for a "fly on the wall" approach, capturing the various performers on both sides of the camera in their element and letting the images speak for themselves. The documentary is divided into a generous 22 chapters and is presented in French (apart from a brief conversation between Jeunet and Angelo Badalamenti, which is in English) with subtitles.
Parisian Scenes is a 14-minute featurette focusing on the process of recreating the look of France in the 1920s by transforming part of Jeunet's beloved Montmartre district into an extremely faithful fascimile of Paris in the early 20th century. Jeunet discusses the gargantuan effort that this represented, and praises his team for accomplishing the impossible. Also included are some demonstrations of various blue-screen and CGI effects used to complete the illusion. This is a fascinating and slightly too brief look at the work that goes on behind the scenes and certainly left me with a new-found appreciation of just how much effort must be involved in productions such as this.
Before the Explosion is a 13-minute piece focusing on the creation of the stunts and special effects for the scene in which a military hospital is destroyed by bombing. Once again, it provides an interesting look at the amount of planning required for such a logistically complex scene.
Finally, a collection of 14 Deleted Scenes are included, which can be watched individually or in succession with or without commentary by Jeunet. In all, they run for around 11 minutes and are an interesting inclusion, but it is fairly clear that their removal did not hurt the film in any way.
Moviegoers who enjoyed Amélie will almost certainly appreciate A Very Long Engagement, which breaks no new ground but is an ultimately satisfying serving of saccharine. Potential buyers might wish to hold out for reviews of Region 2 releases, however, as the American release suffers in the video department in a similar way to many other recent Warner releases.