When it’s on: Thursday, 7 June (3.20 pm)
Jean-Pierre Jeunet followed the immensely popular Amelie with 2004’s A Very Long Engagement, an adaptation of Sebastien Japrisot’s novel. Also starring Audrey Tautou, the gamine, eponymous star of Amelie, this film was released with a big budget, a host of stars (including a pre-Piaf Marion Cotillard and Jodie Foster’s small role) and thousands of extras.
It’s a film centred on World War One, a conflict that has been dwarfed by Second World War movies in Britain and America but, perhaps unsurprisingly, carries especial resonance for France. Losing a generation of young men to the fighting on the Western Front, the Tricolor also suffered the ignominy of court-martialling thousands of deserters, including many who self-mutilated in an effort to be sent home. It wasn’t long before the authorities got wind of such stunts, executing many as they sought to keep up the number of willing bodies prepared to go over the top and get themselves machine gunned for their country.
The soldiers’ desperate craze for shooting bullets through their own hands forms the subject of A Very Long Engagement. Tautou plays Mathilde Donnay, a young girl from Brittany who attempts to find out what has happened to her fiance, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel). Mathilde learns that Manech fell increasingly into depair whilst in his trench, suffering his own bullet and, along with four others condemned to stay in no man’s land (the blasted to bits area between the French and German lines). Refusing to believe he’s dead, despite all the evidence – including a grave – pointing to the contrary, Mathilde starts to investigate. What she pieces together is the story of all five condemned men, their wives and sweethearts, and the corrupt system that allowed French generals to ignore pardons issued from the Presidency. Her research also puts her on the trail of Tina Lombardi (Cotillard), a woman in a similar position to her but one who resolves her issues by killing those she sees as culpable.
As a story, A Very Long Engagement is all over the place, weaving from Mathilde’s tale in 1920, back in time to the trenches, mixing Jeunet’s filming with stock footage and using overlays to convey the characters’ thoughts. An anecdote about the past quickly reverts to the relevant events being dramatised before snapping back, and there’s the jarring clash between Mathilde’s picture postcard life in rural Britanny and the horrors of the front. But this is entirely the point. In one scene, Mathilde asks to be taken to the killing ground where Manech died, only to find it’s now a field, the trenches filled in and crops grown to mask the horrible things that happened there. Jeunet spares little in terms of awful detail. Whilst there’s remarkably little blood as soldiers are mowed down, the camera highlights the dirt, rain and grime of war on the Western Front. Men sleep with rats. Food is invariably served cold. A French soldier wears German boots because they’re better quality and can cope with the often waterlogged ditches that are their home. Shells fall often, the sick fear on the mens’ faces evident as the explosions deafen and they’re covered in displaced muck. Manech’s reasons for his emotional ruin are obvious, not just in Mathilde but the idyll in which they were both raised and came to love each other.
Mathilde is every bit as adorable as one might expect. Lame as a consequence of the polio she contracted as a child, she nevertheless has a cheerful determination to find Manech. At the moments when her hope seems to have gone, she retreats to her room and plays the tuba, replicating the sound of distress calls. Just as there’s a clear juxtaposition between the worlds of Mathilde and Manech, the contrast with Tina is also explored, the latter using sex and death while Mathilde relies on her charm and the support of an endlessly patient family. Cotillard plays Tina as nothing less than a beautiful angel of death. Jodie Foster is another lover of one of the condemned men. He asks her to bear another child because that will give them six and six children will get him sent home. Unfortunately, he can no longer have children and asks her to sleep with his friend, which leads to an unlikely love affair.
Fans of stories with multiple tangents will be well served. The tales spinning off from the central one are diverting and uneven, but the theme is the same and concerns the effect war has on everyone. The filming is, in places, absolutely breathtaking, from the sweeping camera angles following Mathilde’s train journeys to Paris, to the lingering shots of soldiers who survive in the alcoves they’ve fashioned in the trench walls. There’s a really fine bit of work that precedes the first time Mathilde and Manech make love. As he goes through a series of matches to light the dark, each time he blows one out she removes an item of clothing. It’s both innocent and sexy, and a real change in tone from the standard Hollywood love scene where the characters just seem to go at each other with unrestrained passion. There’s no lack of that quality here, but it’s more considered, certainly more stylish and, like many other scenes from this film, quite memorable.
A Very Long Engagement: ****