A Very Long Engagement Review
|Building on the cult following he gained with his deliciously dark comedies with Marc Caro – Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children – Jean Pierre Jeunet has gained a greater international cinema following, not through his first English language film Alien Resurrection, but through the phenomenally successful Amélie. The huge popularity of that film has been a hard act to follow, but Jeunet’s latest blockbuster, A Very Long Engagement (Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles) aims to outdo it in every way.
Set in the Somme during the First World War, five soldiers have been condemned to face a firing squad for attempted desertion, the evidence of their cowardice visible by the self-inflicted wounds on their right hands. One of the men condemned to death is young Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), who has found the horrors of the war too much for his delicate nature to bear. The men are brought to a front line trench, to an encampment called Bingo Crépuscule right before the big push into enemy lines. In the confusion of the sudden attack, the final fate of the prisoners is unclear. In 1919 after the war, Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) finds out that her young fiancé has been killed, but she is certain she would have had a premonition if that were the case and won’t accept his death until she finds the truth about what happened. Hiring a private detective (Ticky Holgado) and the services of the family lawyer (André Dussollier), she uncovers conflicting stories and a dark secret surrounding the officers of Bingo Crépuscule.
Anyone seduced by the wayward charm of Amélie is unlikely to be too disappointed by A Very Long Engagement. Jeunet works in a familiar style with familiar characters and a number of familiar faces, including the wonderful Audrey Tautou. Mathilde is an orphan – the fate of her parents shown in rapid flashback style using black & white photographs and period reconstructions of scenes. A victim of polio as a child, Mathilde walks with a limp and through her lonely childhood and lack of parental guidance has, like Amélie, become a bit of a romantic dreamer. When she starts investigating what happened to Manech, she is handed a box of personal effects, with mementos, letters and objects that she brings back to the families of the other condemned men from Bingo Crépuscule in the hope of sparking off clues to what happened to her fiancé. Awaiting back home in her little cottage with her aunt and uncle, the postman makes regular visits, bring unexpected messages from all over the country, giving her new clues to carry on her search. So far, so familiar.
The problem with the heroine’s search to uncover a mystery and find her one true love this time around is that it fails to fit in well with the serious aspect of the horrors of life in the trenches, or perhaps it is Jeunet’s tone that is inappropriate here. The style is never less than grand, using strong visual motifs to assist continuity and viewer familiarity – the swing of the postman down the cottage path, the sweep of the camera behind Mathilde’s car or train, the overhead crane shots of Mathilde entering a new location, the 'MMM' (Manech ‘aime’ Mathilde) symbol of the couple’s love for each other. Furthermore, everything is filmed in the golden glow of a sunset or the sepia tint of a period photograph - the digital recreations of the early twentieth century Place de l’Opéra and Les Halles locations are particularly impressive. The visual poetry is less appropriate in the WWI trenches, which have all the look of a Disneyland version of the Somme, all blue-grey and misty, looking suitably foreboding, but immaculately lit and never approaching anything like grim realism. Similarly, Jeunet can’t resist grandstanding over the deaths of the soldiers in the trenches. It’s not enough to show them going over the top and dying miserably and anonymously, everyone has their own little story and goes out – sometimes literally – in a blaze of glory. Bombs don’t just destroy camps, they are shown from an overhead view picking out individuals and atomising them in puffs of smoke. Lonely figures venture out into no-mans land to fall in slow motion under a hail of bullets, arms outstretched into the mud. There are no inglorious deaths here. All of this fabulous spectacle however is at the cost of any real feeling or emotion, it being smothered under the next spectacular, beautifully lit scene. Even when Mathilde visits what she believes is the grave of her fiancé it should be a solemn private moment, but Jeunet can’t resist filling every inch of the full scope ratio of the screen with as many crosses as will fit. Visually impressive, yes – emotionally resonant, no.
The film features a very strong cast, including many familiar Jeunet actors – Audrey Tautou, Dominique Pinon, Denis Lavant, André Dussollier, Jean-Claude Dreyfus and a quite impressive French-speaking Jodie Foster – but the roles are reduced to bit parts and cameos – each life told in a series of rapid-sequence flashbacks, all subordinate to the grand visual pyrotechnics. Les Cahiers du Cinéma described the film, with grudging praise, as a two-hour twenty-minute trailer, but Jeunet’s ability to take popular French cinema into an international arena normally dominated by American films without selling-out to Hollywood is admired. The film has been a huge popular and critical success in its opening weeks in France and, following on the heels of Amélie, it is likely to receive a similar reaction when it opens in the UK on the 21st January 2005. A Very Long Engagement has very little to say about the fate of soldiers in the trenches of WWI and strikes me as emotionally empty and soulless as most blockbusters, but it will give an international audience everything they expect from Jean-Pierre Jeunet – romance, fantasy, humour and spectacle - and plenty of it.