A Very Long Engagement (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
What kind of films do you like? Sin City? Pulp
Fiction? Titanic? Saving Private Ryan? The heartfelt work of Charlie
Chaplin? The austere gothic camera work of Orson Welles? The
neo-realism of Vittorio DeSica? The surrealism of Terry Gilliam? This film
has a little bit of each, and more. I have often said that Robert
Rodriguez may be the most talented director in the world and if he
ever stops doing genre films and starts to consider heavyweight
projects, he would create masterpieces like the best works of Sergio
Leone. After having seen Amelie and A Very Long Engagement, I have
to revise my statement. Rodriguez is probably the SECOND most
talented filmmaker in the world, and if he ever stops doing genre
films and starts to consider heavyweight projects, he could make
films like Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
If that is even possible.
Jeunet is a genius, plain and simple. This kind of talent rarely comes along. He is to film what Mozart was to music. His stories are equal to the best literature, and his execution has no equal. What more is there to say? I watched this damned movie with my mouth wide open, constantly wondering "how the hell did he do that?" As for the drama unfolding within the images, I was constantly battered by it - by hope, then hopelessness, then laughter, then shame at having laughed, then amazement, then triumph, then tragedy, then the whole cycle again and again.
The fundamental storyline of A Very Long Engagement is simple. A young French couple is split when he is conscripted to fight in the trenches in WW1. He is an innocent lamb who loses his mind in warfare and ends up getting court-martialed for self-mutilation. The punishment for his crime is to be sent with four other similar offenders into the no-man's land between the French and German lines. He is then forgotten by the world, except for his fiancée, who holds on to the hope that he lives, since nobody ever actually saw him dead. She pursues this hope through an investigation that would impress Philip Marlowe, in which she cajoles, cons, tricks, and begs people to help her talk to everyone who was involved with the court-martial incident. She talks to the other soldiers in her fiancé's unit. She talks to the families of the other offenders. She talks to the medics and gravediggers who cleaned up the battlefields. She talks to the army officials who are supposed to maintain the official records. Her pursuit goes on for years.
I'm not going to tell you how her investigation ends. That's part of the mystery and beauty of the film.
I will tell you that this film is not just a great film, but several great films. As people tell the girl their stories, we see various episodes in the present and past. Some of them are only peripherally related to the investigation, but each of them is a beautiful little short story on its own, like the flashbacks in Citizen Kane. The stories range from sentimental to grotesquely violent to operatic, from realistic to Gothic to surrealistic, and several of them are homages to other classic films. The cinematography is ... well, I hesitate to say the best ever, but a reasonable nominee for that honor, just an incredible blend of live and blue screen action. Robert Rodriguez meets David Lean. In terms of painterly composition, Jeunet is the greatest pure artist to direct films since Tarkovsky died. He may be better than Tarkovsky, since he has all of Tarkovsky's strong points, plus a sense of humor, the advantages of modern technology, and a sense of pacing which Tarkovsky sorely lacked.
This film reunites Jeunet with his most famous collaborator - Audrey Tautou, the young woman who was so charming as his Amelie. She is completely different here: a distant, crippled, unsmiling, determined girl who is obsessed with the dream of finding her lost true love. The film doesn't make any use of Tautou's considerable charm and unique screen presence, and the camera doesn't romance her as it did in Amelie. Appropriately for her character, she rarely gets a chance to look directly into the camera, but she delivers the role competently and unobtrusively, as required.
If I were a young man who wanted to learn how to make films, I would seek out Jeunet and just ask to get his coffee and watch him work. I'd pay him for that privilege if I could. On the other hand, that might be depressing, because I'd realize I could never make films as well as this guy, my only consolation being that everyone else is in the same boat.
There were critics and fans who did not like this film. I suppose this is true because they loved Amelie (as everyone did - it is rated among the top 50 films of all time) and this movie is something quite different, darker, and more macabre, more like Jeunet's earlier film The City of Lost Children. A Very Long Engagement sometimes juxtaposes fairy tale streetscapes with the graphic ugliness of World War One, and Jeunet never turns his camera away from shattered skulls, shattered dreams, shattered families, festering sores, and terrifying explosions.
Amelie, it ain't.
But it is one tremendous movie - an emotional rollercoaster, a work of art, a work of literature, a landscape of the best and worst of humanity.
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