A Very Long Engagement
Review Date: 1.24.05
Jean-Pierre Jeunet's most recent film, now playing at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz, is A Very Long Engagement. Jeunet's the French film maker who really made it big with Amélie, but who made a number of films before that, all somewhat darker. Some of my favorites include City of Lost Children and Alien Resurrection. He almost always casts the same group of signature odd-looking types, with some big stars thrown in, but now that he's got the beautiful Audrey Tatou he won't let go. She's strange too, in her own way, not quite the classic gorgeous actress, and in this movie he gives her an added physical oddity, which is also a distinctive mark of the characters he features in his films-a limp from childhood polio. Ever whimsical in his use of a certain nouveau magic realism, since Amélie he's been exploiting it to shed light on love's mysteries . . . as he does here. In fact, if it weren't for the almost-too-sweet reputation he's gotten since that film, this might well be the most powerful anti-war movie of the year. Unlike American filmmakers who believe that masculinity, brutality and grit are the preferred language for harsh political critique, Jeunet and, I daresay, the French in general, believe that a slightly feminine touch with some human tenderness thrown in to the gory mix can do the job just as effectively.
The movie's about World War I, a war no European would want to glorify in its purpose and its unfolding. This film shows us why people fervently hoped such a thing would never happen again. And, more scathingly, this is not a movie about the French versus the Germans, it's a movie that harshly criticizes the class-based structure of warfare, where the state conscripts poor farmers, the proletariat and the semi-colonized, while generals and the like callously or sadistically or carelessly, and from the comfort of their boudoirs, throw lives away. This is a movie then about what happens to the little people in a war, and what cruelties are visited upon them by their own side as much as by the enemy.
Of course, the frame is a love story. Mathilde and Manech have been friends then lovers since childhood. They are simple people, their love is simple; one day Manech is drafted, and so the story begins. The narrative doesn't follow a straight line, though, and that is, among other things, its charm. Most of the tale involves Mathilde doggedly refusing to believe Manech is dead despite evidence to the contrary-he is condemned to death for self-mutilation in an effort to be discharged, an act apparently committed by quite a few soldiers in World War I. But their love is such that Mathilde would know in her bones if Manech were dead. And his love is so strong that even when war's trauma sends him over the edge and he wounds his own hand, what he thinks is that it throbs like the Morse code of Mathilde's beating heart the first night they slept together when he kept his hand on her breast all night. And so Mathilde searches, and in the process learns the stories of each of the condemned soldiers in Manech's group and the other ordinary soldiers who protested or witnessed their punishment in helpless horror. She is simple, intelligent, and stubborn; her mission is to find out what happened to Manech, not to conduct a campaign against the army's abuses and cover-ups. But she also has an alter ego, one Tina Lombardi, a Corsican woman who similarly investigates the incident but who, unlike Mathilde, systematically avenges her lover's death.
I was skeptical, I admit. I didn't want Amélie-ish heartwarming to the tune of two hours and a war film to boot. But once again Jeunet charmed me and won my respect. He doesn't have to brutalize to help us understand the awfulness of war; on the contrary, he seem to have the novel notion that to appeal to our sense of ordinary decency and humaneness is the best way to cultivate our indignation. Would that our government were half so civilized. Anyway, A Very Long Engagement is a beautiful movie, a serious anti-war statement, and, yes, of course, he can't help it, just a touch too heartwarming to be more than a fairy tale. And look out-you'll be surprised by the cameo appearance of a very well-known American actress whose French, as it turns out, is quite impeccable.
Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.