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The International Writers Magazine
: Film Review

A Very Long Engagement
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet
based on Sebastien Japrisot's novel
Audrey Tautou- Gaspard Ulliel

Jean-Pierre Becker - Dominique Bettenfeld
Clovis Cornillac - Marion Cotillard
Jean-Pierre Darroussin - Dominique Pinon

Jeunet has long delighted audiences with his idiosyncratic films. From Delicatessan, to City of Lost Children and Amelie, he likes to surprise, delight and astonish us. Repeatedly. For my money, I still revere Delicatessan for it's bleak view of humanity and wonderful, farcical treatment of a very hungry underground movement. Now, fourteen years later, Jeunet has grown up. Although he has ditched his longtime partner Marc Caro after the critical negativity of City of Lost Children, there is still the trademark cinematic style of voiceover, eclectic montages and unique perspectives that catch one off guard larded with a stubborn streak of sentimentality. This is the first film of his that is adapted from a novel and perhaps that has provided the restraint that A Very Long Engagement shows. You can see that he wants to give us a Jeunet movie, but there is a straighjacket here that forces a determined narrative line and keeps his exhuberance in check.

Simply told, it is the story of childhood sweethearts Mathilde and Manech, seperated by the First World War and although Manech, her sweetheart is killed (by being abandoned between the lines because he mutilated himself) she refuses to believe he is dead. There is no proof, but despite all telling her she is wasting her time, she clings to a dream; she believes and searches incessantly for 'signs'.

Mathilde, played with stoic charm by the lovely Audrey Tautou, is also a polio victim. This isn't all sugar and spice. She perhaps is obsessed because she believes, despite her pretty face, no other man other than Manech will have her. Manech, we discover, is a simple soul who should never have gone to war. His fellow sufferers are all seen as traitors, each having mutlilated themselves to get out of this crazy war that killed millions of men. All of them left in no man's land to die. The war by 1917 having consumed almost all the young men of France, now needed the skilled men, almost anyone, including criminals for canon fodder. (1.3 million Frenchmen died between 1914-1918).
Jeunet explores the plight of these men and ordinary soldiers in the sodden trenches of France and Belgium. He doesn't flinch from reality and there is nothing sweet or charming about the death of a soldier being exploded, or losing limbs, or having to go over the top to sure, absolute pointless deaths. This may have been a war that the Allies, including France won, but the cost to humanity was appalling and shattered a whole generation. It is good to see too that not everyone was brave and showing how the mutilations went on might upset those who glorify war, but even now , in Iraq, I am sure, we will have soldiers seeking to find a way home and out of the insanity of fighting terrorism there. Who can really blame them. But in France they were not volunteers.

Machech abandoned in No Man's Land

Audrey Tautou is wonderful, determined and ably guided by her Uncle Sylvain (Domininque Pinon), a stalwart of all Jeunet's films. He is rather subdued here, but this isn't his film, it is Audrey's. She is obsessed to find the truth about what happened in no man's land and will not rest until she finds Manech. She seeks help from her trustees in Paris, hires a Detective to find others who might have known him and each day she awaits the arrival of the Postman ( a nice little turn by Jean Paul Rouve).

There are setbacks, subplots to do with another woman, Tina Lombardi, played by (Marion Cotillard), a prostitute who seeks revenge for her man who was abandoned with Manech. She tracks down the guilty who condemned him to die, one by one, and kills them. If anything Tina's story is the more interesting one, but we are with Mathilde's journey of hope and despair and must take comfort from that.

The cinematogrphy in sepia tones by Bruno Delbonnel is wonderful, the absolutely stunning CGI recreations of Paris in 1920, complete with traffic is breathtaking. Turning the Musee d'Orsay back in a station thrilling.

Surpises turn up, Jodie Foster working on a market stall is Elodie, a woman married to one of the men Manech allegedly died with, who has a 'secret'. Elina Lowensohn (from Hal Hartely's Amateur) turns up in a cake shop. She too knows a 'secret'. Denis Lavant, not seen in the UK for years is one of the mutilated soldiers.

The talent in sound design, the special effects (as bombshells descend from the sky), the sheer brilliance lavished on this film makes it gripping, as it takes you on an emotional rollercoaster. The music of Angelo Badalamenti is evocative of the era and the production design led by Aline Bonetto is quite perfect.

This is no trite romance. It is one girls serach for the truth who has a determined belief in love. It might not be true, but it is nice to think that for just over two hours it could be.

Highly recommended. See it in a cinema now

© Sam North Feb 1st 2005
Sam North is the author of the historical novel Diamonds – The Rush of ‘72

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