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A Very Long Engagement

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France / USA, 2004

Rating: 3.3

 

Posted: December 24, 2004

By Laurence Station

Adapting a novel for the big screen ultimately comes down to what to preserve and what to scrap. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's visualization of Sébastien Japrisot's A Very Long Engagement may not be as convoluted as its source material, but it nonetheless suffers from unnecessary bloat that threatens to capsize an otherwise beautifully crafted cinematic vessel. Having gained the clout to make a sprawling period epic, thanks to the worldwide success of Amélie, Jeunet makes sure he cashes in the greater part of plum carte blanche chips.

A Very Long Engagement is a simple story weighed down by extraneous plot points. At its heart, it's about Mathilde (Amélie's Audrey Tautou), a polio-stricken young woman trying to find out the truth about her finance, Manach, -- specifically, whether or not he died in during the Great War. Mathilde's journey to Manach (be it his final resting place or something more hopeful) drives the story. But, like the novel, A Very Long Engagement lives up to its title by exploring innumerable asides involving other players connected to Manach and his seemingly grim fate.

Manach and four other French soldiers were condemned to no man's land for injuring themselves in an attempt to get out of the service. The five are pushed out of the trenches and exposed to the opposing Germans, about as certain a death sentence as one can receive short of a firing squad. The official line Mathilde learns is that Manach perished along with the other condemned men not long after being exiled. But in speaking with soldiers who were there at the time, she discovers that there's a chance, however slight, that Manach may have survived.

Through a stream of correspondences, the hiring of a self-promoting detective, and the placement of an ad in a newspaper, Mathilde begins sifting through various contradictory stories about what happened to Manach. Paralleling Mathilde's comparatively studious quest is the lover of one of the other doomed men, who sets about killing the officers responsible for her man's demise. While this sidetrack adds an undeniable visceral kick to the story (not that the bloody Great War flashbacks don't already serve up enough of that in spades), it detracts from the primary focus of Mathilde and the mystery of what happened to her childhood sweetheart.

Jeunet also indulges in excessive set pieces that could have just as well been told rather than reenacted, such as when a solider who managed to escape the death sentence and flee to safety takes refuge in a hangar converted into a makeshift hospital where a gas-filled Zeppelin hovers. Sure enough, a bomb falls on the place and the Zeppelin goes up in flames. It's spectacular, but utterly unnecessary to the central plot. And at two-and-a-quarter hours, certainly Jeunet was pleasing himself more than adhering to the time-proven "nothing wasted" creed of great cinema.

Despite its wanton excess and Byzantine detours, A Very Long Engagement is a beautifully shot film. Jeunet deftly balances the haunted blue of the battlefield sequences with the bright, pastorally vibrant present day (that being 1920) scenes. Audrey Tautou convincingly imbues Mathilde with a sense of dogged optimism offset by a melancholic understanding that false hope may be the only thing keeping her heart beating.

A Very Long Engagement desires to be an epic on the scale of Doctor Zhivago, but ultimately comes across as an inverted Cold Mountain: Mathilde will reach her man, no matter the obstacles. Hardcore romantics will be won over regardless, but it would have been nice if Jeunet have exercised greater discipline in telling his two lovers' three-hanky story.

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