Jean-Pierre Jeunet exists to remind us to what creative heights movies can soar, and his latest work, Un Long Dimanche de Fiancailles or A Very Long Engagement, is his most ambitious and best film to date.
Viewers expecting the whimsy of Amelie will not be disappointed, but may be surprised — and even disturbed — by the comparative seriousness on display here.
Jeunet is still playful. His film is still filled with endearingly quirky characters. The luminous Audrey Tautou is again at the center of the proceedings, and Jeunet is never at a loss for a breathtakingly beautiful image. But this is a much more serious, much darker film than Amelie.
In some ways, the film’s darkness has more in common with Jeunet’s earlier movies, Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, while blending that quality with the more accessibly human approach and basic reality of Amelie. Where those earlier films were utterly fantasticated, Jeunet here (as in Amelie) finds the fantastic that exists in the real world, carefully editing out the mundane so that everything is heightened.
It’s reality on Jeunet’s terms — the world as he sees it. And I, for one, am very glad he sees it that way and can communicate it to the rest of us.
What one may not be prepared for here is that this approach can be, and has been, applied to very serious and even horrific material with comparably heightened results. As a result, Jeunet’s depiction of the horrors of World War I is as powerfully disturbing as his pastoral scenes are beautiful, his comic scenes are charming, and his romantic scenes are touching.
The story this time is far more complex than any Jeunet has tackled before. Five French soldiers are sentenced to be executed for “self-mutilation” after being convicted of deliberately shooting themselves in the hand so they might be sent home. The orders are that they be released in the “no man’s land” between the French and German trenches and take their chances — which are not very great.
Among those released to die in this ghastly manner is 19-year-old Manech (Gaspard Ulliel, Summer Things), who is suffering from a severe case of shell shock. Manech is engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Mathilde (Tautou), a young woman of more than usual tenacity who will refuse to believe that her fiance is dead.
Since her late parents left a sizable insurance policy that has been carefully invested, Mathilde is able to pursue her belief and tries to find Manech with the assistance of an odd little private detective, Germain Pire (Ticky Holgado, Amelie, who died from lung cancer not long after making this film).
At the same time, something else is going on: Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard, Big Fish, the prostitute/girlfriend of one of the condemned men is going from place to place murdering certain men. Convinced that Tina or one of the other men’s wives or girlfriends can help her find out the truth about Manech, Mathilde — despite having a game leg from a childhood bout of polio — tries her own hand at tracking down clues. Since the movie is structured as a mystery(a much better constructed one than any number of more traditional mysteries of recent vintage), it would be a disservice to describe any more of the plot.
Mathilde is, if anything, an even more beguiling heroine than Amelie. Resourceful, witty, not above using her infirmity for sympathetic manipulation (catch her remark when she suddenly gets out of her wheelchair in front of some startled onlookers), and above all determined, Mathilde is a brilliant creation of both the actress and the director.
As with Amelie, much of the brilliance of the characterization arises from the film’s use of believable little touches of a humanity we can all recognize, such as the little game Mathilde plays with herself to keep her spirits up (“Manech is alive if the ticket collector arrives or we go into a tunnel before I count to ten,” etc.). It’s something we’ve all done one way or another, and it makes us see ourselves in the character.
For all Jeunet’s boundless ability at cinematic creativity, it’s finally his innate sense of humanity that gives his film its greatest power. Warm, witty and occasionally heartbreakingly beautiful, A Very Long Engagement is that rarest of things: a movie where you know at once that it will still be watched 60 or 70 years down the road, and that it will lose none of its power or charm in the intervening years. The film really is just that fine. And, oh yes, keep your eyes peeled for a famous Hollywood star in a supporting role. Rated R for violence and sexuality.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke