Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 13, 2005 8:14 pm 
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What turns out to be, ultimately, a very long movie

A Very Long Engagement, or Un long dimanche de fiançailles, is a strange movie and, as the title implies, a very long one -- or at least for those of us who do not embrace its combination of whimsy and gore, it seems so. Nonetheless, from among all the interesting autumn film releases in France, fate and Miramax -- or was it Warner Bros.? They put up a lot of the dough -- have decreed that this costly sweet-and-sour confection be chosen as the pièce de résistence with which to charm that part of the American public who have not replaced "French" fries with "liberty" ones, and might even use the phrase "pommes frites".

The reason is not far to seek: box office potential. Jean-Pierre Jeunet did extremely well last time with les yanquis. As foreign films go in America, his Amélie -- or, more correctly Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, was as hot as asphalt in July. It got five Oscar nominations and made a hefty (for a foreign film) $33 at the gate. But this new one is a war movie, and whimsical though the plot is, a lot has been spent on making the bombardments and mutilations, the sprays of blood, as striking as they are realistic. It certainly would seem unlikely that the art house audience will embrace A Very Long Engagement the way they did the blood-and-guts free Amélie; but you never know. Jeunet's insured himself a carry-over for fans by again featuring Amélie's winsome Audrey Tautou. (He may have fallen in love with the success of his last movie, though he's been drawn back a bit from the saccharine into gore.) Just as this is not such a cute movie, Tautou's not so cute this time either; she's reduced to clumping around manfully with a leg-length differential from childhood polio. But she's still got that smile.

Indeed, what a peculiar, warped idea it is, to reduce all the horrors of World War I trench warfare to a far-fetched Rashoman-like investigation by Mathilde (Tautou) to track down a young man called Manech. Manech is played by the Gaspar Ulliel who was so feral and interesting in Téchiné's Strayed but is reduced to little more than a few flashbacks and a big dimple here. Manech was Mathilde's childhood sweetheart and briefly her fiancé. The minute they got engaged he was called off to war. They've told Mathilde that Manech is dead and she won't believe it.

The filigreed, elongated tale then focuses, with Jeunet's curious unemotional obsessiveness, upon a crew of five French soldiers who've wound up, in the craziness of war and the brutal code of the trenches, getting condemned to die for self-mutilation -- a bum rap for at least one of them, who was just clumsy, or got involved in a freak accident. One of these, of course, is Manech. They were dumped in a no-man's land, the nearby French soldiers got massacred by the Germans, and nobody much was around to see what happened to the condemned prisoners. The question is, what happened to him? If he can't be quite accounted for, how do we know he's dead? And Ms. Tautou's character refuses to believe that.

Okay, that's romantic. But the story's intricate, farfetched, and intermittently gruesome. The screen is the site of some of the most elaborate and expensive mise-en-scène ever produced by the original inventors of the term. The confusions and alternative versions of what happened are impossible to summarize or to follow, and hence ultimately impossible also to care about. The love story is fragmentary, the boyfriend is a cameo. And given that Ulliel is a more expressive actor than Tautou (watch her in Frears's Dirty Pretty Things and you'll see how limited she is), that's a pity -- and a miscalculation.

You keep following the elaborate, over-produced narrative, hoping it will begin to matter, that the love story will come to life either in the flashbacks or in the future, but it never does; and the extreme grimness of the trench scenes is hard to reconcile with the fairytale playfulness of the story. It seems almost insensitive, criminal, to base such cuteness on a world of blood-spattered corpses and mutilated limbs. This movie contains some very grave clashes of tone. And the most elaborate use of digital effects in a French film yet.

Amid a supporting cast with considerable depth (some of all that money was spent hiring familiar faces), including Jodie Foster speaking excellent French and carrying more warmth than most of these exotic provincial gallic caricatures with regional accents and twirly moustaches, this movie includes the brilliant, and lately ubiquitous, Clovis Cornillac in it, perhaps the first time Americans will notice him -- if they can spot him through the crumpled uniform, the mud, and the blood. He bears an attention-getting name: Benoît Notre-Dame.

This director is a master too much in love with his own invention and cleverness; but mind you, there are beauties here: Jeunet's over-production also means high production values which in turn means a ravishing palette rich in browns and stunning panoramas with dazzling uses of natural light. But despite a unifying, as well as distancing, voiceover narration by somebody who sounds like Mathilde but speaks of her in the third person, it's all too intricate and goes on too long to engage us. When the end comes, it's an anticlimax and brings not revelation but relief.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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