French film director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has said that he doesn't care for realism, that realistic movies in realistic colors bore him. In 2001 he and actress Audrey Tautou made "Amelie," a fairy tale done up in fairy-tale hues, a delightful, lighthearted story with elaborate touches of whimsy. His problem in 2004's "A Very Long Engagement" ("Un long dimanche de fiancailles") is that he tries using the same star and the same basic cinematic technique in telling essentially a serious story of love, war, and death. The result is gorgeous to look at but lacking in substance, a clash of temperaments and fashions that gives one the uneasy feeling of having just looked at alternating stereoscopic Viewfinder stills of flowery hillsides, enchanting seascapes, and grisly deaths. The First World War was ugly any way you look at it, and to juxtapose scenes of exquisite tranquility with ones of ultimate brutality seems a fruitless exercise in self-conscious indulgence if the filmmakers aren't going to do more with it than they do here thematically.
Lest we forget, it was Jeunet who not only gave us "Amelie" but the dark and foreboding "Alien Resurrection." Maybe in "A Very Long Engagement" the director was trying to combine everything he'd done in both previous productions, hoping for some kind of unity that I didn't find. Either that or he was trying to one-up Richard Attenborough in his 1969 movie musical of WWI, "Oh! What a Lovely War," which also juxtaposed the beautiful and the grotesque; but that movie, flawed as it was, at least contained a series of memorable scenes. "A Very Long Engagement" leaves us only with a vague recollection of having seen something fetching and fascinating, but ultimately fleeting.
Anyway, the elfin Tautou plays a variation of her Amelie character, this time a twenty-year-old French provincial girl, Mathilde, whose lifelong friend and fiancée, Langonnet Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), has been reported dead in the Somme in 1917. He and several other French soldiers were court marshalled and convicted of intentionally maiming themselves to avoid further duties at the front, and their punishment was death. They were pushed out into No Man's Land, the area between the French and German trenches, and there left to be killed.
But Mathilde will have none of it. She does not get discouraged, refuses to accept the news, does not believe that Manech is dead, and three years later determines to prove that he is still alive somewhere. The film follows her crusade to investigate what really happened on that fateful night when Manech and the other condemned prisoners were thrown to the enemy to die. Along the way, Mathilde hears from a number of witnesses who describe events in various, sometimes contradictory, ways, somewhat in the manner of Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon," although the differing points of view are not quite so revealing of anything in particular. And, interestingly, the most convincing and arresting characters are those played by two old pros: Tcheky Karyo as a French army officer and Jody Foster (yes, that Jody Foster) as a vegetable merchant, both hard-nosed yet compassionate performances.
The film alternates scenes of bloody violence at the front lines of WWI with pastoral scenes of idyllic perfection in the French countryside. Both extremities are well described and well illustrated by director Jeunet. The opening scenes of battle are especially harrowing and brutal, while the civilian scenes are serene, glowing, picturesque, nostalgic, bittersweet, and sentimental.
As in "Amelie," we get a back story, a history of the main character. We're shown Mathilde's quirky nature; the childhood polio that left her with a limp; her penchant for playing the tuba because it sounds like "a distress call"; her life growing up in the French farmland by the sea. It's all done in a series of picture postcards, intermixed as I say with hideous glimpses of death.
Mathilde goes so far as to hire a private detective, Germain Pire (Ticky Holgado), to help her in her quest. But she must face the obvious conclusion that whether or not she finds her fiancée, she may not be happy. If he's alive, he's surely a deserter, still wanted by the French government and still subject to execution. Perhaps not digging too deeply would be her best course of action. Yet it doesn't deter her in her search once she's made up her mind. Otherwise, we'd have no story.
There is no doubt the film has merit, its visual appeal being the most persuasive. But I found it too much like the fanciful "Amelie" in spirit to be very meaningful in a dramatic sense. Additionally, there are far too many characters to keep track of, some of whom pop up out of nowhere; too many separate stories to sort through; and too much soaring music that seems too big for what's going on at the moment. I never felt compelled to care about Mathilde or her adventures because I never had enough invested in her or her life or her romance. Despite the back story, I never fully understood Mathilde's personality or why she had such confidence in her fiancée being alive. Did she have a sixth sense or was she feebleminded? I never understood why the filmmakers gave her a limp other than to suggest some sort of vulnerability or to evoke our sympathy. And I never knew from where all the funds were coming for her to carry out her extensive investigations, a monetary source only vaguely referenced.
The movie's themes concerning the corruption of war and the power of love, faith, and determination are touched upon but never delved into or capitalized upon to any degree. Instead, "A Very Long Engagement" proceeds along the lines of a police procedural or a private-eye flick. New evidence is discovered here and there, and then we come to a wholly expected and I must say disappointing end, in that it uses one of the oldest and corniest resolutions possible. Worse, as things move forward, they tend to increase in speed, the whole last hour seeming rushed compared to the leisurely pace of the first half.
As odd as it may sound, I found myself feeling about "A Very Long Engagement" the way I felt about the Bollywood musical "Bride & Prejudice": It was all wonderful eye candy but of little essence. I felt empty when the movie was through.
One can hardly fault the picture quality on any count. Using a high bit rate and an anamorphic transfer, the Warner Bros. engineers have transferred the film to disc in stunningly beautiful hues, each sequence in a different predominant color scheme. Most of the tints are similar to the muted pastels in "Amelie" but without the obvious gaudiness. Here, grays and blues are used for the battle sequences, and brilliant golds and browns are used for the postwar countryside. Object definition is good, if a tad soft, and digital artifacts like pixilation, edge enhancement, and moiré effects are not to be found.
I had to wonder if the Dolby Digital 5.1 was ever going to open up to the rear channels, given the opportunities for such an experience early on in the battle sequences, but when it does, the result is well worth the wait. Crowd scenes, especially one in a vegetable market, and musical ambiance enhancement are eventually well served. The front channels display a wide stereo spread, and even though the frequency response is not as wide as it could be, it offers up some strong sonic impact.
I have to commend WB for doing up "A Very Long Engagement" in a special two-disc edition, because the fact is that it didn't do well at the box office. Of course, the studio may also have an ulterior purpose. I read recently that Hollywood now makes about 60% of its profits on DVD sales, not box-office receipts. So Warners may be gussying up their film in an effort to find a bigger market.
In any case, disc one contains the feature film and an audio commentary by director Jeunet. The problem with the commentary, though, is that it's in French, so for non-French speakers the subtitles are in order. But you can only have one set of subtitles switched on at a time, so either you read what the director has to say or you read what the actors have to say, not both. What Jeunet does have to say is fairly straightforward and serious, rather than the unconventional approach he says he was tempted to take. Lastly, there are thirty-nine scene selections, with no chapter insert; French as the only available spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Disc two presents a small but rewarding set of bonus features. The first is "A Year at the Front: Behind the Scenes of A Very Long Engagement," a sixty-three minute documentary divided into twenty-two chapters. It delves into such topics as cast selection, costuming, special effects, location shooting, rehearsals, and editing. It's handsomely made and mounted and for me was more interesting than the main film. Next is a thirteen-minute segment called "Parisian Scenes," which shows us how the filmmakers went about using actual locations and a lot of blue screens to recreate Paris in the 1920's. Then, there is a twelve-minute segment called "Before the Explosion," which tells how the filmmakers created the scene of the big dirigible blast. Finally, there are eleven minutes' worth of widescreen deleted scenes, fourteen of them in all, with or without director commentary.
My only quibble with the extras on both discs is that the animated menus are of the kind that seem to take forever to unfold. I suppose it matches the mood of the movie, but I prefer getting to the point as quickly as possible, especially when I'm looking to play a specific item.
I kept thinking as I was watching the movie that I should have been liking it more, given its sublime artistic virtues. But "A Very Long Engagement" proved to be a very long and very tiring sit for so little return except the aesthetic enjoyment of the French countryside.
"A Very Long Engagement" is every bit the fantasy, the fairy tale, that "Amelie" was, yet we are expected to take it seriously. I couldn't. Tautou is lovely as always, the supporting cast are uniformly excellent, the cinematography is ravishing, the colors are well chosen and atmospheric, the music is uplifting, but the story is vapid. While I can easily recommend the film for its visual appearance, I did not find its opposing elements of beauty and ugliness serving much purpose beyond style for style's sake.