This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
Jean-Pierre Jeunet, aside from having the most French of names possible has lead an odd career to date. Brought to the world at large’s attention with the odd but great Solyent Green inspired Delicatessen and the odd but decent City of Lost Children, his remarkable visual styles and leftfield narratives made him the dish of the day in many quarters. The decision to have him shore up the fourth Alien outing, Resurrection raised eyebrows and for once rightly, his style and touches fitting poorly with the central idea of a movie that ought never to got past the drawing board in the first place. Whether or not the sting felt from this provoked him to head back to France and create one of the finest films of the last century in the beautiful, uplifting and genuinely charming Amelie we don’t know, but we should count ourselves lucky to live in a world where it exists.
After four quiet years on the Jeunet front, he returns with Un long dimanche de fiancailles, or A Very Long Engagement for the non-native speakers amongst us. With the return of the earlier films star, Audrey Tautou there was a brief period of decrying this as Amelie at War that’s only been halted by the realisation that this isn’t anywhere near as good as Amelie. How so? Stay with us gentle reader, and all shall be revealed.
World War One, a uniquely horrible thing only eclipsed by some sterling atrocities from that zany Hitler fellow a few years later. Amongst the countless declared dead in the trenches around No Man’s Land is Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), beloved betrothed of Mathilde (Tatou) but Mathilde isn’t the sort of girl who believes everything she reads. With a hope born of love and innocently childish belief she does not accept that Manech has bought the farm and sets about tracking him down. To make the most of the few clues available to her about Manech’s final postings and whereabouts of the surviving combatants of the frontline trenches, she enlists ace private detective Germain Pire (Ticky Holgado) and his impressive moustache, which trivia has it took a team of three men eight hours to hoist into place with an elaborate series of winching mechanisms.
As parts of the puzzle are pieced together we get flashbacks to various sections of the supposed final days of Manech in one of the very rare movies where a non-linear narrative can be justified in storyline terms rather than a gimmick. If nothing else A Very Long Engagement drives home the point that we are very, very lucky that barring some extremely unlikely scenarios we will never have to experience the tragedy of trench warfare and the massive losses incurred for each two metre land grab attempt. The genuinely affecting and effective portrayal of the WW1 action in this film, while far from the point of the piece, is about as good as we’ve seen. One wonders if Jeunet will consider telling a pure war story, it would be something very special on this evidence.
Yet, it’s not the focus. This is very much a showcase for Tatou, and while the past few years have certainly not dimmed her beauty her character here isn’t as compelling as Amelie, odd given that it’s a far more complete character than the whimsical earlier role. While there’s still hope and a something of the fairytale in Mathilde, there’s also a harder edge present on occasion that perhaps makes her a little less lovable in a film that’s never striving for gritty realism outside of it’s overwhelming war scenes.
A Very Long Engagement is occasionally hauntingly beautiful and hopefilled, and often it’s astonishingly barbarous is a sense that equals Saving Private Ryan. Sadly the swings between these extremes doesn’t hang together in the same rarified air and it’s often mundane, accentuated rather than alleviated by Jeunet’s trademark moments of unrelated quirkiness. Mathilde plays a tuba, because it’s the only instrument that can imitate a ship’s distress call. Which is a poor excuse to have an off-screen ‘parp’ for a cheap gag. Speaking of parping, Mathilde’s aunt’s mantra everytime their mutt lets one off might be a charming character touch in many films but coming a few moments after someone’s been graphically shot in the head it doesn’t have quite the intended effect.
The point of A Very Long Engagement, I suppose, is to point out that War is in fact Hell?, and that the opposite end of human nature is the love that can bind two souls in manners that logic and words can’t explain properly. Which is nice. At heart a romance story, just an oddly separate one where the external force that keeps the lovers apart isn’t some warring family members but an entire warring world. The difficulty in accepting it stems from it’s gritty, horrifyingly realistic (certainly the closest I’d want to get to trench warfare in this or any other lifetime)depiction of the folly of war, which doesn’t sit well with an almost fairytale, light as a feather portrayal of love. In isolation both are great, together it becomes far less than the sum of it’s parts.
At times like this giving star ratings to films seems a horribly flawed system. After all, the mark about to be bestowed upon it would suggest it’s little better than its day of release running mate Elektra, a suggestion so blatantly incorrect we hope you’re all chuckling mordantly at it. Indeed, were this released at any time over the last four months it would most likely be the best thing on general release, or at least a solid contender for the post. However, I feel we need to reflect that the fact that it’s not a patch on Jeunet’s sublime Amelie (unfair perhaps, but largely a rod of his own creation) and that it comes to us at a time when three bona fide Oscar hopes (Ray, Million Dollar Baby, The Aviator, probably four but I’ve not had a chance to see Vera Drake yet) and one of my favourites 2046 are still kicking around. Actually come to think of it, it’s also got Closer, House of Flying Daggers and the tail end of The Incredible‘s run to contend with. That’s as strong a cinematic line up as I can remember being in a multiplex at the same time, a brief golden age of film where A Very Long Engagement is an exquisitely crafted bit of silverware. Good and all, just not as good as that which surrounds it.