Sunday, January 22, 2017
Director Report Card: Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2004)
A Very Long Engagement
Un long dimanche de fiançailles
After the international success of “Amelie,” Jean-Pierre Jeunet set out to make his most ambitious film yet. Re-teaming with Audrey Tautou, the director would mount “A Very Long Engagement,” one of the most expensive French films made at the time. Aside from the sheer scope of the project, the film presented many other challenges to the director. It was his first adaptation, based off a novel by Sebastien Japrisot. It was his first historical film, his first war movie. Neither the surreal sci-fi of his early films nor the everyday whimsy of “Amelie” would play much of a role in this. The risk would pay off, mostly, as the film would exceed its budget at the box office, win positive reviews, and earn a few Academy Award nominations.
Mathilde and Manech are young lovers, engaged to be married. Their love affair is interrupted when World War I breaks out, dragging Manech away to the blood soaked trenches. Manech winds up among five soldiers sentenced to death for self-mutilation. During the march to be executed, all five men disappear. Mathidle is crestfallen by the news but refuses to give up hope, believing Manech to still be alive. She follows a convoluted series of event, hoping to track down the man she loves, even though everyone else is convinced that he's dead.
Befitting its literary roots, “A Very Long Engagement” shares the novel-like structure that “Amelie” had. Both films feature sporadic narration, describing the events from on high and filling in background details. Jeunet's tendency towards meandering stories, featuring lots of narrative side paths, are also carried over to this film. This reveals “A Very Long Engagement's” true motivation. The film is structured like a mystery, as the lead character follows leads, trying to parse out the truth for herself. Unlike a standard mystery – where the goal is to find a murderer or something stolen – what's at stake here is hope. Mathilde's ever-lasting hope that her lover is still alive is challenged by everything around her, threatened to be snuffed out, but always finds a way to persist.
Despite its differences in story and tone, it's clear that “A Very Long Engagement” stands in the shadow of “Amelie's” success. You wonder if the director reunited with Audrey Tautou, in hopes of recreating that film's success. Tautou's Mathilde shares some similarities with Amelie. Both are eccentric young women. Mathilde plays little games in her head, deciding Manech is still alive if certain events within a certain time frame. Another thing the character has in common with Tautou's most famous role is that both had lonely childhoods. Mathilde's parents died when she was long and her childhood polio put her in a brace, making her lonely and withdrawn. Yet Mathilde's strength manifests in different ways then Amelie's. She is driven to achieve her goal, no matter the odds against her.
“A Very Long Engagement,” among its many other elements, is also a beautifully realized love story. Mathilde and Manech's romance begins when they are little children, after the boy expresses concern for her leg. She's quiet at first but his continued kindness wins her over. Soon, they are running and playing through Manech's lighthouse. That sense of mutual understanding and playfulness powers their relationship. (The latter of which is beautifully displayed when the two make love for the first time, with Mathilde removing another layer of clothing every time the lights flick on and off.) All of this is shown through a flashback in the center of the movie, making the viewer understand why Mathilde is so devoted to this man.
life on the front, where death comes suddenly and brutishly, where dead bodies are just an every day part of the scenery.
Jeunet rarely gets political but an anti-war message quickly emerges from “A Very Long Engagement.” The film begins with a lengthy prologue, explaining why the five men where sentenced to death. Each, eager to escape the horrors of the war, mutilate themselves in hopes of getting away from the trenches. When their deception is found out, they are sent to die. The script happily draws attention to the irony here. That the men are trained to kill but punished for shallowly harming themselves. In one case, a cigarette burn to the hand is sufficient enough to count as “self mutilation.” As Mathilde digs into the five men's lives, the film also draws attention to another sad reality of war. That normal men – carpenters, husbands, boys – are swept out of their everyday lives, dropped onto a battle field, and expected to kill.
The extended run time, of two hours and thirteen minutes, leaves room for plenty of seemingly unrelated story points. Some of these elements are more interesting then others. One lengthy scene features a surprise appearance from Jodie Foster, who speaks fluent French. It details the story of man so in love with a woman that he adopts her five children. As the war looms, he hopes to avoid being drafted by fathering a sixth child. But the man is sterile, so he insists his wife sleep with his best friend. She's resistant, loyal to him. When the affair begins, she falls in love with the best friend. It's another story of loyalty and vows being tested, quite different from the story of Mathile and Manech's ever lasting love.
An underrated aspect of “A Very Long Engagement” is its supporting cast. Mathilde's guardians, an uncle and his wife, are played by Jeunet's lucky charm Dominique Pinon and Chantal Neuwirth. Both are hugely nurturing towards their adopted daughter, projecting a genuine warmth. Pinon is very good at subtly suggesting that perhaps it's pass time for Mathilde to give up her quest, while remaining supportive of the girl. Neuwirth, meanwhile, is all homey warmth, making rich meals and laughing at dog farts. Near the end, there's a touching scene where we get a deeper peek at her character.
“A Very Long Engagement” is another proud reunion for Jeunet. Angelo Badalamenti scores the film, returning from “The City of Lost Children.” It is a lush, moving score. Badalamenti begins with a mournful oboe, drawing attention to the longing Mathile feels for her lost love before building towards a cascading wall of overwhelming strings, enriching the emotional struggle the characters are feeling inside. It's also a sonically big piece of music, full of huge emotion and powerful climaxes, matching the film's epic story.