A Very Long Engagement

Amelie does wartorn France, but is this another example of style over substance from Jean-Pierre Jeunet?

By Phil Moore

Starring Audrey Tautou, this latest offering from Jean-Pierre Jeunet is set during and after the devastation of the First World War. The fourth film by the illustrious french director who brought us Amélie (2001), and, with Marc Caro, Delicatessen (1992),  A Very Long Engagement is very much the kind of film you might expect.

Like Amélie, the film opens with a voice-over narrator, this time introducing us to five condemned French soldiers including Manech, the fiancé of Audrey Tautou's character, Mathilde. The men are sent on what is practically a suicide mission as punishment, for having 'accidentally' shot themselves, but something tells Mathilde that things are not quite what they seem. This is due in part to her superstitious nature, but also to the fact that no one actually witnesses Manech's death.

Thus begins the fabulous journey of Amélie – oops, i mean Mathilde – and we embark upon it with her meeting along the way a host of quirky and fantastic characters, that, as in Amélie, are introduced to us through the device of rapid flashback mini-biographies.

War scenes in the film are quite simply spectacular. From the opening shot of a bleak no-mans land with a smashed crucifix and the emaciated corpse of a horse hanging from a tree, we walk bent double, cursing, through the sludge with the five condemned men. It is clear throughout the film that Jeunet is keen to show the horrors and absurdity of war, and he does so in a confident and well executed manner. The action sequences bring to mind Spielberg's spectacular opening in his Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Beside the war sequences we see Mathilde travel to Paris and across France to get closer to the truth of Manech's fate. Jeunet, along with the crew he's worked with on other films, recreates a vibrant and bustling 1920s Paris through the use of digital technology, proving his mastery of manipulating the image; A Very Long Engagement is full of the crazy details and stunning visuals we have come to know through his earlier works.

The consummate fantasist, Jeunet's film of a couple in love is based on a novel by Sébastien Japrisot, and throughout the film the story of these two lovers sits uncomfortably within the context of the war. A Very Long Engagement teeters somewhere in between these two 'realities' – perhaps this is why the shuffling back and forth between wartime and after, traversing sub-plots and a profusion of characters, makes for some confused viewing. However, this narrative exposition appears to be natural to a director who clearly perceives the style and content of a film to be inextricably tied together. Some have commented his films are all rhetoric with no content, but i get the inkling that in the case of Jeunet the medium informs the message. Having said that, he is an adept director in the traditional tinsel town, spectacular kind of way, which is why he perhaps tried his hand with a stint over in america. Ironically, A Very Long Engagement has been ruled as not being french enough, ruling it out of competing in French film festivals.

A Very Long Engagement, therefore, lies in the middle of an interesting tension between 'dazzling spectacle' and the more traditionally Ffrench approach of concentrating and relying upon a central narrative. The films conclusion sits uncomfortably, as it seems that the final 'message' – that hope prevails – is unsatisfying, and only then do we begin to get a stronger sense of the love story. Wavering on the sentimental, but not shying away from the gravity of war – and ultimately being a story of a couple in love – a very long engagement is definitely worth a watch for all those interested in cinema, and a must for those who hold Jeunet in high esteem.
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