Very Long Engagement
Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France / USA, 2004
Posted: December 24,
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
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
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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