February 27, 2005

A Very Long Engagement

by JEREMIAH LEWIS, American Digest Film Editor

FRENCH DIRECTOR Jean-Pierre Jeunet infuses his latest picture, A Very Long Engagement, with the same fairy-tale sentimentality of 2001's Amelie, though with slightly more plodding and a little less success. Even if his vision and cinematic realization of the story of love and war, based on the novel of the same name by S├ębastien Japrisot, are perfect, the whole of the film is somehow less than its parts, and the ending is, quite frankly, a dirty trick to play on an audience whose expectations have been dragged along for two hours and fourteen minutes.

Told through a series of flashbacks, the tale encompasses the indomitable love between Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) and Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), whose childhood friendship blossoms and becomes an engagement broken by the onset of World War I. Manech is sent to the Somme trenches, but Mathilde knows in her heart that Manech will return alive.

News arrives, however, of the demise of five soldiers who wounded themselves in order to be sent home. They are instead sentenced to No Man's Land, the space of ground between French and German trenches bombed into oblivion and sure death for any man who is exiled there. Manech was one of the five, and though he is reported as dead, Mathilde feels he is still alive.

She begins a quest to find him, hiring a detective named Germain Pire (Ticky Holgado) to track down any leads. Meanwhile, she writes letters to various people related to the five men who were sentenced to death on the battlefield, discovering along the way that very little of the official story is true. Despite her aunt and uncle (Chantal Neuwirth and Dominique Pinon) encouraging her to give up, her hope is buoyed by each news she hears. She continues the search, even when all evidence points to the likelihood that Manech has indeed died.

The film is indeed a wonder for the eyes and ears. Jeunet simultaneously captivates and disturbs with his vision of the guilded age of Parisian and French provincial life, World War I (a subject that has yet to be extensively mined in cinema, even today), and a truly fairy tale love. The stunning artistic and production design is, to my eyes, unparalleled, whilst the music and sound equally conveys the magic of love, the soaring beauty of the earth and man's creations, and the terrible horrors of war.

The film is a love story wrapped around a mystery, using the war as its vehicle. It attempts to be all three equally well, and that is one of the film's flaws. It never fully engages viewers in the more important love story, focusing instead on the mystery and the uncovering of truth. Whilst Tautou is more than capable of the role, we are never given much of a chance to care about her love for Manech or empathize with her quest. Her bond with Manech, whilst given some screen time, is pretty tenuous a hook to hold an entire story up, and over the course of the film, we are given only brief snatches of justification.

The other major problem is the ending, which I won't give away, except to say that it is a let-down. Every frame has just been spent on convincing us that the love between Mathilde and Manech is so strong that even the report of his death is not enough to diminish Mathilde's conviction that they are bound by something stronger. Whilst not entirely untrue to the story, per se, the ending certainly diminishes the impact of the film as a whole, and makes a moot point of everything seen up to that point.

However, A Very Long Engagement does not fail to please, for the most part, fans of period cinema and lovers of an expertly constructed film. There is style here that transcends the weaknesses of the story, and might just make one a true believer in the magic of fairy tales.

Jeremiah Lewis of Fringe reviews films both at his site and American Digest. Lewis can be reached directly at jeremiah.lewis@gmail.com

Posted by Vanderleun at February 27, 2005 10:01 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

But the film DOES have Audrey Tatou--without tatoos, bling-bling or a smutty attitude--and she alone makes the film worth the price of a ticket.

Posted by: slimedog at February 27, 2005 4:50 PM

Dude, right on there brotehr.

Posted by: Tisha at January 6, 2012 12:12 AM