A Marriage of Style and Substance
Jean-Pierre Jeunet has one of the most distinctive visual styles in modern filmmaking. His first two films, Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children (co-directed with Marc Caro), were a psychedelic visual freak-out quite unlike anything seen before. Garish colours, bizarre special effects and outlandish-looking actors were used to surreal effect.
The visual style in Jeunet's most recent films, while still unusual, has been toned down somewhat, making them more palatable to mainstream audiences. His new-found restraint is evidence of a filmmaking talent that is maturing, as Jeunet successfully applies his idiosyncratic style to new genres, namely the romantic comedy in Amelie, and now the romantic epic in A Very Long Engagement.
A Very Long Engagement revolves around the events of a terrible day of fighting during the First World War. Five French soldiers have deliberately injured themselves in the hope of being sent away from the horrors of the front. Each of them is sentenced to death for self-mutilation. But instead of being sent to the firing squad, they are left to fend for themselves in the no man’s land between the French and German trenches. One of them, the naďve, young Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), subsequently goes missing.
On hearing of his disappearance, Maneche’s fiancee Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) refuses to believe he may be dead. She interviews survivors of the battle and the events of the day are told, Rashomon-style, from differing perspectives. As she tries to piece together what happened that day at the front, the mystery deepens, but she stubbornly refuses to give up hope. Even after the end of the war, her quest to find her long-lost love goes on year after year, and her determination to know the truth only grows stronger.
As lovely as she is, it seems unlikely that Audrey Tautou would be able to carry a huge romantic epic -- one of the most expensive French films ever made -- on her own. In Cold Mountain, which had a similar story about lovers separated by war, Nicole Kidman and Jude Law had roughly equal screen time. We witnessed the trials and tribulations of both lovers, as each struggled on alone. In A Very Long Engagement, the entire story is told only from Mathilde’s perspective. Despite this, Tautou somehow does manage to carry the film, because by the end of it the audience feels for her so completely that even a few hardened cynics will be wiping away the tears.
As a romantic epic, the film is very powerful and moving. It’s the mystery elements of the story that let it down slightly. This type of story-telling is obviously not Jeunet’s strong-point. While mysteries are supposed to be complex, this one is often just confusing. It has too many minor characters, mentioned briefly, to keep track of them all. Still, this is a film that needs to be felt more than understood. Viewers going along for the emotional ride will be thoroughly rewarded. Like so much else in the film, the last shot and last lines of voice-over are beautiful and poignant, without being overly sentimental.
The late film critic Gene Siskel said that “Good movies are never too long and bad movies are never too short.” Even at 134 minutes, A Very Long Engagement seems to fly by. By Siskel’s standard, you wouldn’t mind if this engagement went on even longer.
(Released by Warner Independent Pictures and rated "R" for violence and sexuality.)