The International Writers Magazine
:DVD Review

A Very Long Engagement
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet starring Audrey Tautou
Dan Schneider

With the possible exception of America’s Claire Danes, the French actress Audrey Tautou is probably the most interesting actress alive to simply watch onscreen. It’s not that Danes and Tautou are not beautiful, they are. But they are not gorgeous screen sirens, they have an accessibility to them that makes ordinary men feel that they could some day have a girl like that fall in love with them.

This is because they radiate, they simple glow with presence. Tautou, who first came to American filmgoers’ attention with the smash hit comedy Amélie, is also the lead star of A Very Long Engagement, the new film by the director of that earlier film, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Tautou not only engages with her ability to simply radiate, but because she can do more acting simply with her face than most actresses can do with their whole bodies, and in this film she shows it, playing a World War One era polio victim in search of her lover who is presumed dead.

The film is gorgeously shot, in unrealistic tones- ranging from golden to sepia to gray, in the sense of the trench warfare. The basic plot is that Tautou’s character, Mathilde, is seeking the truth about her lover Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), who is reportedly dead, sentenced to death with four others for cowardice by the French military, for self-maiming, in a scenario not unlike that in Stanley Kubrick’s first great film, Paths Of Glory. Ulliel gives a good performance as a likable naïf. The other four sentenced to die are Bastoche (Jerome Kirchner), a carpenter; a socialist welder named Six-Sous (Denis Lavant); a cowardly Corsican procurer and thief named Ange (Dominique Bettanfeld); and a farmer named Benoit Notre-Dame (Clovis Cornillac). But, it’s not simple death by firing squad, but being tossed out into the No Man’s Land between the French and Germans, with no weapons. Such barbarism argues against any notions of France as the seat of high culture.

After the war, Mathilde investigates, ands eventually hires a Parisian detective (Ticky Holgado), before finally uncovering the misdeeds by her lover’s superiors, and a double case of identity theft in which her lover and her rescuer escape. But, she’s not alone in trying to sort through the military mess- an avenging prostitute named Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard), lover of Bastoche, seeks out the military men and is executing them. By film’s end we find out that her lover has, indeed, survived, but shellshock and his wounds have left him a total amnesiac. The final scene of the film where Mathilde confronts Manech, who does not recognize her, is realistic, poetic, and touching. Jeunet knows the perfect way to shoot, edit, and end the shot for maximum effect. It is also one of those scenes and moments that European filmmakers do with infinitely more subtlety and emotion than their Hollywood counterparts, who’ve seemingly lost all capacity to craft films of substance, and instead never miss the opportunity to bastardize real emotion with the trite nor schmaltzy.

This, however, is a great film, with scenes of battle carnage every bit the equal of the ridiculously overlauded Saving Private Ryan, but it also has believable and identifiable characters, moments of great humor and depth, and a true actress for the ages in Tautou.

 Whether she is scheming, playing the tuba, consoling herself, or playing a little mind game to bargain for the safe returnof her lover (which she does several times in the film), Tautou dominates the screen like few actors can. Jeunet’s reputation and reach as a filmmaker extends to these shores, as well, as a small but key (and unbilled) role in the film, as Elodie Gordes, the wife of one of the lesser characters, is accorded to American actress Jodie Foster, who we learn from the DVD’s Special Features a) speaks French fluently and b) was in Paris for the dubbing of her film Panic Room, so assented to appear in this film. It is true that Foster is amazingly good with the French language, and while I recognized her right away I had to double take to realize it was not a dubbing job of her voice.

As for the other features on the DVD, there’s an over an hour long featurette on the making of the film that while thorough, gives little insight into the film, save for the technical aspects. There is also a trailer, several other documentaries, and deleted scenes with commentary by Jeunet. The film’s actual commentary, with subtitles in French, just as in the actual film, does inform a bit, and is a cut above the typical Hollywood fellatio. It should be noted that the whimsicality and quality of the two Jeunet efforts I’ve seen (this and Amélie) almost moots the eternal arguments over whether or not foreign films should be dubbed or subtitled. I always prefer good dubbing, since a visual medium should not require one’s reading while something significant can go by you onscreen, but Jeunet’s films, despite being well written, are not dependent simply upon the words, but the actors’ emoting of them, and the visuals that couch the scene, to a far larger degree than American films rely on. The score by Angelo Badalamenti is just right in that it never intrudes, yet seeps into you nonetheless.

A Very Long Engagement, adapted from a French novel by Sebastian Japrisot, is a truly terrific film, and even though it really isn’t a strict war film, I would rank it right up there, just behind the best war films ever made- the aforementioned Paths Of Glory, A Thin Red Line by Terrence Malick, 1997’s Regeneration, from the U.K., and Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Copolla. Audrey Tautou is a star of the highest order, whose comparisons to that other filmic Audrey - Hepburn, are apt, and one can only hope that her forays into Hollywood will gain her the recognition here that she deserves; although starring in the upcoming Ron Howard version of The Da Vinci Code is not the best way to start. Jeunet, however, has added to a distinguished career in French and world cinema with what will one day be considered a classic.

© Dan Schneider March 2006

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