Thursday, July 21, 2005

A Very Long Engagement (2004)


A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

One of the most annoying stereotypes used by Hollywood and other forms of American entertainment industry is the alleged cowardice and lack of martial spirits among French people. Those views are difficult to reconcile with historical record, which includes characters like Louis XIV and Napoleon and France enjoying centuries-long reputation of Europe's greatest military power and most belligerent country. However, France in 20th Century, just like the rest of the Continent, lost the taste for combat due to traumatic experiences of two world wars. In the last year, two French films dealt with those traumatic events. First was STRAYED by Andre Techine, and the second was A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT, 2004 period drama directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

The film, based on the novel by Sebastien Japrisot, begins in January 1917, during the last stages of Battle of Somme. Few years earlier millions of Frenchmen enthusiastically joined their British and Russian allies against Germany and Austria-Hungary, determined to liberate Alsace and Lorraine from German yoke. But all their bravery achieved nothing but an endless line of trenches where the soldiers have to deal with mud, disease, shelling, poison gas and incompetent officers who occasionally have them mowed down by German machineguns during futile infantry charges. After months and years of such hardships, many of the men had enough and tried to end their misery by self-inflicted wounds that would have made them unfit for military service. French military brass sees such deception as a crime punishable by death, but having the men shot might risks mutinies, so condemned men are instead led to no man's land where the dirty work should be done by Germans. One of such groups included 19-year old Manech (played by Gaspard Ulliel). Three years later his fiancée Mathilde (played by Audrey Tatou) is convinced that Manech somehow survived that ordeal. She begins her own investigation, helped by the Parisian private detective Germain Pire (played by Ticky Holgado). She is soon confronted by series of conflicting and confusing accounts about her fiancé's ultimate fate, but even more confusing is the fact that some of the witnesses are being killed in gruesome way.

For those who know him for his romantic comedy AMELIE, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's decision to direct a war film looked strange. Yet, Jeunet is hardly a stranger to the stories in which large numbers of people get killed in gruesome fashion, as those who watched his underrated ALIEN: RESURRECTION might attest. The plot of Japrisot's novel served as an opportunity for Jeunet to show that he could handle light-hearted and disturbing material in the same film. Thanks to the huge budget, CGI and Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography, early 20th Century France is reconstructed in all of its glory and misery. Scenes depicting bleak and banal reality of the trench life provide sharp contrast to scenes depicting the idyllic Breton countryside where Mathilde lives, as well as magnificence of Paris, reconstructed in loving detail and shot through warm, sepia filters. Because of that, A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT is a successful genre combination of a war film, period romance, detective story and black comedy.

More impressive than any visual trick is the gallery of memorable characters, all being played by experienced actors. Some critics saw Audrey Tatou as merely repeating the role she had played in AMELIE, but even if there is many similarities, they aren't that visible because the story isn't centred on Mathilde's character exclusively. Almost any of the condemned men is given a back story and the audience is anxious to find what ultimately happened to them. The acting is great - some of Jeunet's regulars, like Dominique Pinon, are well matched with major stars like Tcheky Karyo or Jodie Foster appearing in virtual cameos. Especially moving is the performance by Ticky Holgado, at least for those aware that the actor was dying from cancer while playing a comical role.

However, otherwise great impression left by the film is marred by one unfortunate casting choice. Gaspard Ulliel, who was very effective in STRAYED, appears to lack proper chemistry with Tatou and the love scenes, which appear in flashback, almost ruin any suspension of disbelief. Thankfully, those scenes are relatively short. On the other hand, some other scenes - like the hospital incident at the end - are too long, too elaborate or too spectacular to be taken seriously. Yet, even with such flaws A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT deserves recommendation. There are very few films that deal with such depressing chapters of history in a way which is realistic and entertaining at the same time.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)


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