A Very Long Engagement
January 19, 2006
Starring: Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Jean-Pierre Becker, Dominique Bettenfeld, Clovis Cornillac, Marion Cotillard, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Julie Depardieu, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, André Dussollier, Tchéky Karyo, Dominique Pinon, Jodie Foster, ,
After the phenomenal success of Amélie (2001), Jean-Pierre Jeunet could have played it safe. Instead, he parlayed that success into an ambitious romantic tale set against the backdrop of World War I. A Very Long Engagement (2004) reunites Jeunet with his star from Amélie, Audrey Tautou, allowing her to stretch as an actress.
The set-up is an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). Five French soldiers are about to be executed for various forms of self-mutilation (some accidental, some on purpose). However, there is a change in plans and instead they are sent out into the battlefield with no weapons and certain death. At home, one of the condemned soldier’s fiancée, Mathilde (Tautou), receives word of his fate but refuses to believe that he’s dead. So, she decides to investigate the circumstances of his death, talking to anyone who knew him and piecing together what really happened.
A Very Long Engagement becomes a convoluted mystery as to what exactly happened to these five men as Mathilde tracks down their surviving loved ones and acquaintances, deciphers letters from lovers and even revisits the battlefield while Jeunet repeatedly revisits that fateful day Rashômon (1950) style. As the film progresses, more layers are revealed and it becomes more than just a story about one missing man but about all five men who were sent out to the battlefield to die. Who were they? What were their lives like before the war that motivated what they did during it that earned them their death sentences?
As with all of Jeunet’s movies, this is a beautiful looking motion picture, expertly shot by Bruno Delbonnel and reinforcing that the director is still one of the premiere cinematic stylists. In contrast to the grim, harrowing war scenes, the ones at home are shot in a warm, sepia tone colour like an old, faded photograph. As with Amélie there is an incredible amount of detail contained in every scene that often threatens to overwhelm the actors. Jeunet applies the same fractured, hyper-realistic style he used so well in Amélie (he is the master at little visual asides, inserts that provide brief insights into a character) to this ambitious hybrid love story-war film-mystery. However, Audrey Tautou has such a compelling, striking presence that she is never lost in the film’s arresting visuals.
Taking a page from Saving Private Ryan (1998), Jeunet films the war scenes with a muted colour scheme of muddy browns and drab greens. He shows the punishing, dehumanizing effects of war dropping us right into it as men are blown apart, dead or dying, gone crazy or trapped in barbed wire as they fight for their lives in the trenches with constant rain—a far cry from the warm, cuddly romanticism of Amélie. A Very Long Engagement is the darker flipside to this movie but still has a romantic heart at its centre as Mathilde’s quest for the truth is motivated by her love for her fiancé.
Those looking for the emotional pay-off of Amélie will be disappointed. After two hours and all of the convoluted plot twists that one has to navigate, you feel a little cheated by the lack of a satisfying emotional conclusion. Did we and poor Mathilde go through so much only to reach such a lackluster conclusion? Perhaps that is the point Jeunet is trying to make. That war has its costs. Men are killed, go crazy or just lose their way. There is a glimmer of hope at the end of A Very Long Engagement but it is an anti-climatic feeling.
On the first disc is an audio commentary by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. For the war scenes he used Word War I photos as references and drew upon his own experiences in the military while admitting that on a technical level he was inspired by Saving Private Ryan. Many of the shots of self-mutilation in the trenches were from the original source novel and a common occurrence during the war. This is a very informative track with Jeunet speaking constantly and candidly.
The second disc starts off with a feature-length making of documentary entitled, “A Year at the Front: Behind the Scenes of ‘A Very Long Engagement.’” It goes from the storyboarding/pre-production phase to the completed movie with no narration, instead opting for a fly-on-the-wall approach. One quickly gets the impression that this was a massive production with many months spent making this epic movie. There is footage of some cast members auditioning and even of Audrey Tautou learning how to play the tuba! The construction of the French trenches was impressive in it scale and detail. This is quite a detailed look at the filmmaking process and an excellent companion piece to Jeunet’s commentary.
“Parisian Scenes” is a look at how they changed contemporary Paris into one of the ‘20s: a mix of CGI and practical sets, props and costumes. Jeunet has worked with the same crew for five movies and so they know what to expect from him but this film was particularly challenging in terms of its scale.
“Before the Explosion…” examines how they pulled off the impressive hydrogen-filled zeppelin explosion sequence. Jeunet and his team had to find the right hanger for the scene and then make it up to look like it would during World War I. An incredible amount of work and detail went into it and then CGI was used to do the actual explosion.
Finally, there are 14 deleted scenes with optional commentary by Jeunet. They don’t add up to much in terms of time as the director explains that he does most of his cutting during the script stage and that way he has very little to cut during editing. Among some of the noteworthy footage is a sequence where we actually see the five prisoners being sent out to the battlefield to die and a whimsical introduction of Mathilde’s cats.