Friday, October 3, 2008

A Very Long Engagement

"A Very Long Engagement" aka "Un long dimanche de fiançailles" (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004) Epic war film, reuniting Jeunut with his "Amelie" star Audrey Tautou, that tells the story of one woman's search for her lost lover who went to WWI and never came back. The film is full of story and incident (and Jeunet's wind-up mechanism way of telling a story) that it makes the 134 minute film feel a lot longer.

The film starts as a story told in flash-back of five soldiers who were court-martialed for self-mutilation (shooting themselves in the hand by various means) in order to get themselves out of the war and the hellish existence in the trenches on the front line. One of them is the Manech (
Gaspar Ulliel), lover of Mathilde (Tautou), whose fantasies and re-imaginings of the circumstances of the war make up the bulk of the film's realisation. By various means, she begins to piece together the story of her lover's court-martial and punishment (he and the others found guilty are thrown out of the trenches into "no-man's land" to fend for themselves), which are told "Rashoman"-like from different angles and perspectives.

The war-scenes are appropriately grisly, Jeunet displays his usual penchant for things grotesque--there's a murder of a rotund general by a prostitute that's particularly...interesting--that are part and parcel of his films, and there's the tendency to turn his films into little Rube Golberg-esque mechanisms, that can become tedious as much as they can delight (He always has to thrown in "the mechanism of sex" joke somewhere, too).* Still, as distracting as his eye for the unusual shot can be, there are moments of "gee-whizzery" and CG-wizardry that are pretty wondrous, and stay in the head long after the details of the movie fade. Jeunet is a master of bending reality to meet his artistic goals, whether lighting and dressing an area to its maximum potential, or employing digital tricks to make it conform to his vision or the past's.

Examples of some of the amazing frames of "A Very Long Engagement," some courtesy of Evan Richards and his wonderful blog
"Cinematography, Etc."

A make-shift field hospital set in a dirigible hangar is engulfed in flames when a bomb sets off the contained hydrogen.

A sinister night meeting is made even more so in Jeuneut's composition--as the one must come down to the other's level.

Going a long way for a visual pun-a farmer is met by gendarmes to join the war-effort, and the wind from their car sweeps aside the tall grass leading to their wagon. "Draft," indeed.

Jeuneut makes incredible use of depth-of-field here, as Mathilde seeks out the wife of one of the condemned in a market-place (Yes, that is Jodie Foster, whose french is impeccable)

A Luhrmann-esque "post-card" shot told in lettered flash-back.

A CGI recreation of WWI-period Nice, France. Quite Nice, in fact

The crippled Mathilde must stand on her rickety wheelchair to reach for war records.

"MMM"--the initials "Manech's marrying Mathilde" --is a constant icon throughout the film. Here, Jeuneut cranes up from the carved initials to Mathilde's obvious bliss. The shot will continue further up to include an albatross-symbol of tenacity.

The young Mathilde fantasizes that her new boy-friend will save her from falling from the lighthouse. The next scene will have them embracing as they gaze from the light in a mock-Hollywood shot.

Jeuneut makes the stair-way leading to the light-house lamp a "golden spiral.

From the impossibly soaring crane-move preceding it, it's obviously a set, but the breathtaking sun-set looks quite real, even if it is computer-enhanced.

Jeuneut makes Mathilde's family's home warm and earthy by accentuating the color palette of the scene.

The Fog of War--Jeuneut drains the color out of a stark battlefield to shades of gray.

A hospital is drained to a sepia tint, not unlike the jaundiced color of old medicine bottles.

The lighthouse stirs to life

Ultimately, it is such a polyglot of a movie that one can't help feel it might split any potential audience. Those wanting a purely romantic film will be put off by the war scenes and the occasional blunt sexuality, as well as the prolonged sense of hopelessness the film radiates. Those interested in the mystery aspect will be frustrated by the lack of momentum in the progress of acquiring facts and the diverging stories leading to blind alleys. What spurred me on was seeing the amazing scenes like the preceding ones, and seeing a new one around every splice.

It's an amazing film, if not everyone's cup of tea.

* It occurs to me that in the unlikely event Steven Spielberg ever wants to hand over the reins of the "Indiana Jones" films to another director Jeunet would be the perfect choice.

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