Sunday, January 30, 2005

A Very Long Engagement

(Dir Jean-Paulle Jeunet, with Audrey Tatou and many others)

This is the guy who made that charming little movie, Amélie, and before that, Delicatessen, although this film inhabits a territory at some remove from Amélie. It is, however, clearly the work of a master stylist: A Very Long Engagement is gorgeous, even with the numerous scenes of front-line war. I’ve never been in a war, let alone the first world war, so I cannot really vouch for authenticity, but they were as convincing as any I have seen. As the bullets swarmed through and into the French troops, mowing them down, we were right there – seeing them strike home, hearing them go past our noses (actually, I thought these sounded just a little electronic). I was reminded a little of the fight scenes in Cold Mountain, with which this movie has more than a passing similarity.

Mathilde (Tatou – who I see is to play the lead female in the Da Vince Code) simply cannot believe that her man, Manech, was killed in the War. The evidence of his death is pretty compelling – not only does she receive a report of his death but also that, because the powers that be thought he had mutilated himself to avoid fighting, he (along with four others) had been thrown over the French front line into the no-mans-land between them and the Germans. The idea is that sooner rather than later either the French or the Germans will get them. Still, she plays these little games with herself; if her dog comes in before she’s called to dinner, Manech is still alive and so on. Her quest is to uncover the truth about Manech and to find him, if possible. There’s a gratuitous poignancy provided by the fact that she’s lame, which is no doubt to suggest that she won’t be able to get another man – it fell a bit flat for me. She is certainly a strong enough actress to play the part without that sort of gimmickry.

At the same time, Tina Lombardi is not only of the belief that the five men (which included her fellow) are dead but that her man’s death is to be avenged. So, she too is on a quest, to hunt down and kill the three or more men she holds responsible. Her view of the truth is that the men all received a presidential pardon but that the commander was so lazy and morally bankrupt, he had simply ignored orders.

These two quests ultimately lead us to the truth, and it is the gradual process of uncovering both falsehood and truth that provides the substance of this movie. Apart from a few brief pre-war scenes at the beginning, to identify the five men and make us care a little for them, the movie is mainly set in 1920, with flashbacks to the war scenes as they become clearer to Mathilde.

There is a seriousness to the movie, because it still seems to mourn the tremendous losses of the first world war and to condemn the less than noble commanders, but it does not stay in that mood. It is positively playful at times – the best example being the post-man who everyday cycles up to Mathilde’s family home with a Kramer-like flourish, spilling all of the gravel into her father’s garden. So, dad cobbles that area and it’s the post-man who’s in the garden. There’s lots of little elements like this one, which add colour and depth to the movie. And, of course, there is Mathilde’s own romantic vision which provides the key to the entire work.

Ah – I am not going mad – I was convinced that Jodie Foster was in some of the scenes, but that made no sense to me. It turns out that, yes, it was her as the lover of one of the soldiers.


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