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PopEntertainment.com > Reviews > Movie Reviews > A Very Long Engagement (Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles)

MOVIE REVIEWS

A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT (UN LONG DIMANCHE DE FIANÇAILLES) (2004)

Starring Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Jerome Kircher, Dominique Bettenfeld, Marion Cotillard, Jean Pierre Darroussin, Denis Lavant, Clovis Comillac, Albert Dupontel, Chantal Neuwirth, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Julie Depardieu, Dominique Pinon, Tchéky Karyo and Jodie Foster.

Screenplay by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant.

Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Distributed by Warner Independent Pictures.  134 minutes.  Rated R.

A Very Long Engagement (Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles)

True love and the horrors of war are such polar opposites in the human condition that it is probably not surprising how often the two are joined together in the name of art.  However, going back to the beginning of storytelling, it has been a basic conflict that has recurred through the centuries, from Helen of Troy to the Knights of the Round Table to A Farewell To Arms.

This basic storytelling contradiction still has bite in this French film. (Well, there is some controversy in France whether it should be considered a French film as it was financed by an American company, Warner Independent Pictures.  However, the dialogue is in French, it was filmed in France, 99% of the cast is French, the writers and director are as well, so as far as I'm concerned it is French.)  A Very Long Engagement is based on Sébastien Japrisot's 1991 novel about a woman who refuses to believe the overwhelming evidence that her beloved was killed in World War I.  Despite the world telling her that he died on the battlefield, Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) cannot believe that Manech could be gone from the Earth, because she still feels him in the world and in her life.

The film does an amazing job of contrasting the inescapable dreadfulness of battle with gorgeous countrysides and cities of early Twentieth Century France.  Since Saving Private Ryan came out several years ago, films about war feel duty-bound to explore the revulsion of combat.  This movie's battlefield scenes are extraordinarily disturbing, not just because of the violence -- although that is certainly a nearly constant and explosive reality and danger.  The amazing thing that is shown is the squalor of the conditions, even when things are relatively calm.  Hundreds of men stand knee-deep in muddy water at the bottom of long, labyrinthine bunkers, surrounded by rats, freezing cold, wet, hungry, with little in the way of good food and drink.  However the worst part is just the waiting, knowing that at some time they will be forced to climb up out of the bunker -- more likely than not be shot on sight.

You can understand why any soldier there would do whatever it takes to get out of this situation.  Manech is one of five officers who are condemned to death for self-mutilation, for purposefully getting shot in hand so that they will be sent home.  The five soldiers are sent to the front and forced out of the bunker right into the no-man's-land in the middle of French and German trenches and then told to fend for themselves.

Three years later, Mathilde still can't allow herself to believe that Manech is dead.  Even she recognizes that this conviction is probably wishful thinking, however, as she states several times, without that faith she really has no reason to go on.  Mathilde has been handicapped since she was a child -- polio has left her with a constant limp.  Her parents died when she was only a little girl, and while she loves her aunt and uncle (Dominique Pinon and Chantal Neuwirth), she has always had trouble making friends.  She and Manech knew each other since childhood and they are devoted to each other, partially because they both felt like outcasts.  They were like two halves of a whole, and Mathilde grasps at coincidence and a gut feeling that she would just know if her fiancé was gone.

Mathilde travels to Paris and around the French countryside meeting the friends and lovers of the condemned soldiers, trying to find out what happened on the fateful day at the bunker.  These people include a woman who because of the war lost not only her husband, but also the man she was surprised to fall in love with (a wonderful cameo by Jodie Foster, who is impressively fluent in French).  She also meets a bartender who lost his best friend in the battle, the cook at the bunker who was kind to the condemned soldiers, the sister of one of the enemy soldiers and one of the condemned soldiers who was able to survive and create a new life for himself and his family on a secluded farm.  There is also the widow of one of the men, a prostitute who is conducting an investigation into the soldiers' fate as well -- although she has a more sinister motive for finding out what happened. 

Audrey Tautou does a wonderful job of portraying Mathilde, a much more sober and brooding character than her breakthrough starring role in Amelie.  Gaspard Ulliel brings a childlike innocence to the character of Manech.  The rest of the cast is similarly stellar.  The direction, by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who had previously done The City of Lost Children, Delicatessen and Amelie) is gorgeous, with grand vistas and retro filming styles casting a spell.

The amazing thing about A Very Long Engagement is the fact that as ugly and hideous as much of what happens on the screen is, this is a spectacularly beautiful movie.  Rolling French countrysides, the Orleans train station in Paris, lighthouses over storm tossed oceans, cozy bungalows and a not quite finished Eiffel Tower are just some of the spectacular sites on screen.  The movie works spectacularly as an argument against war, but it also makes a surprisingly strong case for the power of true love.  (12/04)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2004   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved. Posted: December 14, 2004.

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Copyright ©2004   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved. Posted: December 14, 2004.

 

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