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Wednesday, March 23, 2005
Coming back from no man's land
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet of "Amelie" and his leading lady from that film, Audrey Tautou, are reunited in "A Very Long Engagement," a story of pure love and faith set against the backdrop of the barbarous trench warfare of World War I.
Given the huge international success of "Amelie," there's a certain logic in Tautou reuniting with Jeunet, especially considering none of the other roles she's had in the interim -- "Dirty, Pretty Things," "The Spanish Apartment," "Pas sur la bouche" -- have had anywhere near the impact of her comedic big screen debut.
However, viewers shouldn't expect another "Amelie"; "A Very Long Engagement" is a very different film indeed. True, Tautou's heroine in this film does share a few similarities with Amelie: a mild quirkiness; a mischievous determination to get what she wants; and a dreamy belief in true love. But what's even more striking is the difference in tone: "A Very Long Engagement" is a dark film, which pits the purity of love against the trauma of war, and the outcome is left unclear.
Based on a novel by Sebastien Japrisot, the film begins in the rain-filled trenches of the Somme in 1917, where men, mud and mangled remains merge into one stinking mess. To get out of this living hell, soldiers would sometimes inflict wounds upon themselves. As the French Army faced mutinies and a possibly catastrophic loss of morale in the bitter year of 1917, the punishment for those trying to escape the front was death.
Flash forward to 1920, where Mathilde (Tautou) lives on a farm in Brittany with her aunt and uncle. News reaches her that her childhood sweetheart, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), was among a group of five soldiers court-martialed for intentionally wounding themselves. All five, she learns, were marched at gunpoint with hands tied into no man's land; none returned. Mathilde senses, somehow, that her lover is still alive and sets off on a quest to discover his fate. Hiring a private detective (Ticky Holgado) and a lawyer (Andre Dussollier) to aid her, she finds her suspicions confirmed by letters from the condemned men.
Gradually, Mathilde cuts through a web of mystery, meeting with witnesses from the front, and friends and lovers of the missing soldiers. Each story she hears adds more detail -- a German aerial attack, a disastrous French assault -- but no one can confirm Manech's death for certain. Even when standing next to his grave, Mathilde refuses to believe he's gone, and rumors of survivors lift her hopes . . .
As a story about the senselessness of World War I and the incompetence of commanders, "A Very Long Engagement" has obvious parallels to Stanley Kubrick's classic "Paths of Glory." Kubrick, however, had a coolly cynical view of human nature, and was not one to sugar-coat anything. Jeunet, on the other hand, has always been a romantic at heart; this was obvious in "Amelie," but even the wicked black humor of "Delicatessen" and "City of Lost Children" was tempered by soft-hearted guys who'd do anything for a girl.
Thus, the film flips between two modes -- grim, gray scenes of the battlefield, and sun-flecked scenes on the idyllic coast of Brittany, including a rapturous sequence where a young Manech carries Mathilde (crippled in one leg by polio) up to the top of a lighthouse. It's a typical Jeunet move, visually boosting his themes by soaring up to the heavens after wallowing in the muck of the trenches.
The director's work here is as striking as anything he's done. Jeunet has always been France's premier visualist, and here he has a 46 million euro ($60 million) budget to indulge his fancies with, whether that's re-creating a vast Art Deco railway terminal for a throwaway shot, or staging a tricky assassination through a mirror's reflection. And, as usual, Jeunet has stocked his flick full of his regular quirky character actors; he even gets a scene-stealing supporting turn from Jodie Foster, speaking perfect French, as a woman who lost both her husband and lover to no man's land.
It's Tautou, in the lead, who's more problematic. Unlike the charming Amelie, Mathilde remains rather one-dimensional -- other than stubborn determination, there's not much that distinguishes her. She likes cats and dogs, and plays a very unladylike tuba, but of her interior life we get almost nothing, and that's a big gap in a girl who was orphaned and suffered from polio. Jeunet worries about her seeming too goody-goody, so he includes scenes of her stealing government documents or touching herself in bed, but even here that seems more of an excuse for a trademark Jeunet quick cut (to a flickering silent-movie joke version of Mathilde's fantasy) than any real connection to the character.
Ultimately, "A Very Long Engagement" bears more than a little resemblance to last year's "Cold Mountain," which also featured a long road to reunion for two lovers separated by war. It would seem that Anthony Minghella's elegiac approach suited the material better than Jeunet's whimsical tone, but they're both intriguing variations on the theme of "Isn't war such a dreadful, wasteful interruption of the better things in life?" This movie is another quiet but poignant rejoinder to all those "Alexanders" and "Pearl Harbors" out there.