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A Very Long Engagement
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Cast: Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel
hen reviewing movies about war, critics, in accordance with union bylaws, are occasionally required to cite Francois Truffaut’s contention that it is impossible to make an antiwar film, since the medium inevitably glorifies combat. Because it’s seemingly impossible to glamorize a hellish zero-sum game of European trench warfare, his argument is perhaps inapplicable to World War I, which may explain why there are relatively few modern films dramatizing it.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement certainly didn’t send me running to the recruiting office. Its depiction of the Great War is harsh and terrifying, more psychological than visceral. Although at one point a soldier regains composure after an explosion to find himself covered in his buddy’s guts, some of which he spits out of his mouth.
"Yeah, gimme 200 bucks on Triple Entente. He's running in the fourth race."
But it is a Jeunet film, so the guts, like everything else onscreen, are colorful and quite pretty. Though not nearly as pretty as star Audrey Tautou, at whom I could gaze lovingly all day. This may damage my critical objectivity, but if there was a job that required me to do nothing besides look with adoration at this amazingly beautiful woman, I’d be on it like a cheap suit. As yet, she hasn’t returned any of my phone calls.
Anyway, Tautou plays Mathilde. Engagement begins with five condemned French soldiers, including Mathilde’s young fiancé, being cast into the no-man’s land of bodies, barbed wire and muck between trenches, where they are almost certain to die. Each soldier was convicted of self-mutilation—shooting themselves in the hand—in an attempt to be sent home, thereby committing the treasonous sin of not wanting to get bayoneted to death. Here’s hoping the United States military doesn’t utilize such a barbaric punishment because, with rumors of a draft still flying around, this was pretty much my only idea.
Much of Engagement is devoted to what happens after the soldiers are thrown from the trench, and this incident is explored extensively in flashback as Mathilde, a few years after the war, clings to the dwindling hope of reuniting with her beloved Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) when logic and obviousness suggest he’s dead. She relentlessly investigates her lover’s fate, searching for clues in every corner of Europe, seeking out the other condemned soldiers’ loved ones, one of whom is played, inexplicably, by Jodie Foster. During her investigation, the story gradually builds steam, filling in gaps of that fateful day in the trenches and illuminating the touching backstory of the two lovers. In one jaw-dropping sequence, a young Manech carries polio-stricken Mathilde up the winding steps of a lighthouse as a spectacular ocean vista unfolds around them.
"I'm sorry, but I just don't like you like that. Besides, this really isn't the best time..."
Engagement is basically three films: a war film, a romance and a mystery, and its chief flaw is indecision about which it wants to be. Jeunet, beloved for Amelie, The City of Lost Children, Delicatessen and, to a much, much lesser extent, Alien Resurrection, is better at conveying whimsy than bleak literalism. Not that the battle sequences aren’t powerful and accomplished, but juxtaposed with his trademark fanciful storytelling and quirky, whiz-bang character exposition, they don’t carry the thematic weight they probably deserve, since they are essentially incidental to the love story.
In a lot of ways, Jeunet’s work resembles recent films by Martin Scorsese—technically proficient, visually idiosyncratic and consistently entertaining, but devoid of anything more rewarding than what meets the eye. He leaves nothing to the imagination, no scene or shot begging for more explanation or interpretation than what he assigns to it. As such, Engagement adds up to little more than the sum of its admittedly attractive parts (I’m talkin’ about you, Audrey). But with parts so brilliant and lovely, why complain?
By: Troy Reimink
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