December 20th, 2004

benpeek

A Very Long Engagement.

Lately, the movies being released haven't appealed to me. Everything either has an amazing level of stupidity that insults me based only on the films premise (National Treasure) or is a kid's flick (A Series of Unfortunate Events) or is the vanity project of rich and beautiful Hollywood types (Ocean's 12) who want to have a holiday and get me to pay for it.

The end result has been that I haven't seen a movie for a while.

Last night, however, urged by nine buck tickets I received in the mail, I went and watched Jean-Pierre Jeunet's new film, A Very Long Engagement. Truthfully, I didn't need the offer, since I've loved every film he has made since Delicatessen. I even liked Alien Resurrection, which is by far his weakest film, but which is just beautiful to watch and has some nice moments, including a nice chance for Sigourney Weaver to be interesting within the franchise. Of course, when all things are said and done, it never rises above the fact that it's just another of the alien shake and bake plots, but still, I liked it. Many people don't, but I do.

A Very Long Engagement, however, is a Jeunet film, free of franchise, and with a larger scope than his previous films have had. This is probably due to the success of Amelie, which is just an utterly charming film, and left me with the opinion that I can watch Audrey Tautou in just about anything. Luckily, she has returned in this film, and playing the young woman who has lost her fiance in the first world war, and limps in search of him across the French country side and Paris due to the polio she contracted at as a girl. She is not as charming as she is in Amelie, but that is due to her character, who is sadder, but more hopeful, and more directed in her singular goal. In addition, this film is not the last, and while Amelie is nothing but sweetness, A Very Long Engagement is a bittersweet film.

It opens in the trenches of World War One, with five men being lead to No Man's Land, the area between the French and German lines, where they will be tossed out there weaponless and without food, to be executed for self mutilation.

It's a fantastic opening, narrated with Jeunet's quirky personal back flashes, showing how the soldiers arrived at their position, and sketching their character out. The last of these soldiers is the young man Manech, Mathilde's (Tautou) fiance. Soon, he will be reported back dead, but Mathilde will refuse to believe that it is true, and embark on her quest to find him, based off nothing more than her belief (dellusion) that he is still alive. Essentially a form of detective narrative, the film then follows Tautou as she tries to undercover everything she can about the Trench they were in, and the four men who were sent out with her fiance. It is here that the real trick of the film is, because, as it progresses, it becomes clear that the story is not really about Manech and Mathilde--they're too plain, too simple as lovers to carry enough meat for the film to be interesting. They are young and in love and there is very little more to them. However, the four remaining men, and a few in the trenches who saw them out, are, thankfully, complex figures who lead lives of various moral ambiguity, and it is through learning their deaths that Mathilde tries to learn Manech's fate.

I won't detail her quest, and the specifics that lead her from point a to b and then c and d. There are some nice twists that reveal themselves, and a subplot that doesn't fully connect with the first, but which is still quite tragic. To talk about them in detail, however, will ruin them, and I will say only that it's fully engaging and with a surprising wealth and density that exists despite the somewhat cliched set up of a woman looking for her lover, thought dead. However, over all this is Jeunet's lush, beautiful cinematic world. It feels (or, at least it feels to me afterwards) that the real world is just a little bit monotone whenever I finish with one of his films. Everything is real to the point that it leaps off the screen in a rich texture, capturing you in it. Trenches are dirty and ugly. The French country beautiful and idyllic. The film goes for just over two hours, but I could've stayed longer, simply based off the look of the film.

There are faults. If a plot that solves its problems based on coincidence bothers you, then you ought to be prepared, as it happens a few times within the film. Indeed, wherever it appears that Mathilde is stalled in her quest to find Manech, someone appears with the required lead. In addition, there are times when Tautou's charm and beauty works against her to create a fully believable character. One can't help but think that if she had been a bit plainer, a bit more of a country girl, then this would be right for Mathilde. Jodie Foster, in her small roll, brings a down to earth, plain and rough beauty to her character that make her position in the social levels of Paris credible, as do the characters who surround Tautou. But it's a minor qualm, and frankly, one I shrugged off, because I can just watch Audrey Tautou in anything, even as a limping, orphaned farm girl who is searching Europe for her lost fiance.

If you can't pick it, I really quite liked this film. I suspect if you've liked Jeunet's film before, you'll find much to like in this, too, as it is filmed with his personal narrative quirks and distinct look... and if you haven't liked those previous films, well, perhaps that will be the case again.

Shame, really.
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