A Very Long Engagement reunites writer/director Jean-Pierre Jeunet with his Amelie star, Audrey Tautou; co-writer, Guillaume Laurant; cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel; editor, Herve Schneid; production designer, Aline Bonetto; and many other members of the crew and cast (including Ticky Holgado, Urbain Cancelier, Michel Robin, Andre Dussollier, Dominique Bettenfeld, Jean-Pierre Becker, Thierry Gibault, Gerald Weingand, Frankie Pain, and Philippe Beautier). It makes sense that Jeunet has surrounded himself with so many of those who helped him created the sustained, elating whimsy of Amelie; here he’s set for himself the even more difficult goal of bringing that whimsy into something more like the real world, a world in which war, death, and destruction await and a pretty Parisian pixie can’t set it all right.
The film takes place during and slightly after the First World War. Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), a dreamy young man who’s been engaged since childhood to Mathilde (Tautou), is one of five French soldiers sentenced to death for the self-mutilation they’d hoped would be their ticket home from the front. Rather than simply kill them, the soldiers force the condemned men into the no-man’s land between French and German trenches to be finished off by the enemy. Three years later, Mathilde, who believes that Manech must be alive because their connection is such that she’d feel it if he died, is called to a hospital in Rennes to see a dying man who’d known Manech at the front. Their meeting leads her to hire a private detective (Germain Pire, the Peerless Pryer, played with officious relish by Holgado) and embark upon an investigation that will lead her all over France, investigating clues and meeting those who’d known Manech and the other condemned men.
As in Amelie, Jeunet moves outside the central plot to fill in details and add resonance and the sense of his world continuing beyond the edges of the frame. The investigation takes many twists and turns, introducing dozens of characters and filling in their backstories. Jeunet and Laurent (working from the novel by Sebastien Japrisot, the pseudonym of Jean-Baptiste Rossis) take the time to develop each of these characters, giving their stories humor and charm but never using them just to score laughs. Each story contains almost equal parts pathos and dry wit, and we become invested in their outcomes both as puzzles and for our emotional connection to the characters.
The recreations of battle convey the danger and chaos without losing the fantastical element that is Jeunet’s trademark. Steadicams circle and dart through the battle at ground level and aerial shots pull back to give us a sense of the fury of explosions. The scenes are stylized, but we’re spared none of the horrors. Limbs and lives are lost, and the loss hits us in the gut because we’re made to understand so much of these men’s lives before the war. Jeunet’s theme is the absurdity of war and the tremendous cost of each individual life lost, and he makes us feel for every one of these men, and for the women at home, fighting their own particular wars.
A Very Long Engagement is a sweeping, romantic epic in a manner that few filmmakers would attempt anymore to imitate, but there is an integrity to its vision, a sort of cheery fatalism that insists that even through tragedy all can work out in the end, in a way that is at least poetic, if not quite happy. Though it could easily be sentimental and sloppy, the emotions are kept at human scale and undercut by wry humor, and while you may become teary-eyed at certain scenes, you don’t feel cheap about it.
As Mathilde, Tautou works in a different key than she did in Amelie (or in Stephen Frears’ brilliant Dirty Pretty Things). It’s a quieter, less adorable performance, one that emphasizes the character’s tremendous hurt and sacrifice and her devotion to her beloved. Terms like “winsome” and “gamine” attach themselves readily to Tautou, whose spritely beauty and vulnerability could lead one to underestimate her abilities as a actor, but she has only begun to explore the range of what she can play, and so far she’s doing very well indeed. Mathilde is an orphan and a polio survivor (a symbol of her generally indomitable spirit) who uses a cane or, when it suits her purposes, a wheelchair, but never allows any obstacle to slow her down. It’s a character who could easily be a cloying secular saint, but Tautou injects her performance with little bits of naughty sexuality and flinty determination that keep her human. Though unwilling to admit it to anyone, including herself, she’s perpetually on the verge of losing her faith, making little bargains with God, or Fate, or herself to reassure herself that she will find Manech.
Jeunet’s style is a mass of seeming contradictions that he manages to balance more consistently than almost any director I can think of. His early features (Delicatessen and City of Lost Children), done in collaboration with Gilles Adrien and Marc Caro, were darkly comic fantasias that were beloved by cineastes but a little too morbid for wider audiences. He then came to America to direct Alien: Resurrection, perhaps the most perverse and disturbing film of the “quadrilogy.” With Amelie, he made a film that was sunny, candy-sweet, and universally loveable without sacrificing any of his delight for quirky humor or marvelous visual invention. Now he’s tackled the epic form and managed to meld his recent good humor with his visceral feeling for violence and horror. What can he possibly do for an encore?
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
A Very Long Engagement / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()