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November 2004

By Julian Roman
A Very Long Engagement

Distributor: Warner Independent Pictures
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Producer: Francis Boespflug, based on the novel by Sebastien Japrisot
Screenwriters: Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant
Cast: Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Jean-Pierre Becker, Dominique Pinon & Dominique Bettenfeld



There are few actresses as lovely and emotive as French beauty Audrey Tautou. She's particularly skilled, but adds extra appeal with her wide-eyed expressions and mischievous grins. She gained international acclaim as Amelie, the titular character of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's romance masterpiece. Four years later, Tautou re-teams with Jeunet for his epic World War One love story, A Very Long Engagement. The film is a sweeping cinematic odyssey of young lovers separated by the savagery of war. It is a stunning achievement, brilliantly shot, designed, and executed on a grand scale. Jeunet and Tautou surpass the magic of their previous work with a film that grips and enchants at the same time. It is a superb film that will be near the top of my year's best list.

The story is best described as Cold Mountain in reverse. Instead of the soldier finding his way home to his sweetheart, the sweetheart searches for him. Tautou plays Mathilde, a crippled young woman besotted by the memory of her first love, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel). Manech left their tiny seaside village to fight in the trenches of World War One. Mathilde receives word that Manech has been killed for self-inflicting a wound. It's disgraceful for soldiers to purposely injure themselves and the French government relegates the death penalty for such an act. Mathilde refuses to believe this and knows in her heart that Manech is still alive. She sets out on a journey to discover the truth. What she finds is a labyrinthine mystery involving numerous people. Manech had many encounters leading to his supposed death. Mathilde must retrace his steps to prove conclusively that the love of her life is gone.

The film avoids a straightforward narrative and consistently flashbacks to earlier events. I've seen quite a few films this year that misused flashback sequencing. A Very Long Engagement is not one of them. It skillfully cuts the flashback scenes into a particularly detailed storyline. It's expertly done and adds a riveting effect to the continuity of the story. You're always learning something new and it keeps things interesting. Credit the exceptional script work of Jeunet and his co-writers. The plot is complicated with many characters and settings. The film would have been a confusing disaster if the structure was not so keenly realized in the script. Editing is also a major factor, but I would guess that the script had everything laid out.

The production design is astonishingly good. A Very Long Engagement has quite a few drastically different settings. There are gritty, blood-soaked battlefields, quaint villages, the bustling metropolis of Paris, expansive farms, the list goes on and on. The production team does everything right, down to the smallest detail. As an example, the battle scenes are laced with intricacy beyond the fighting. It's obvious that the filmmakers spent a lot of time making the film as realistic as possible. Granted, they did have an enormous budget, but similarly themed and budgeted films have rarely been so well conceived.

Now comes the part where I fawn over Audrey Tautou's performance and the genius of Jeunet. Every good actor has tangible qualities that define their performances. A good director knows how to exploit this and possibly shares some of these traits. The trademark of a Jeunet film is that no matter how dramatic he gets, there is always a playful lightness. He's not serious beyond reproach. Audrey Tautou seems to convey this in her roles. She has a fairy-like charm that surfaces, even in the saddest of scenes. The melding of these two talents has twice worked wonders, that cosmic relationship of an auteur and his muse.

A Very Long Engagement is that rare piece of cinema that will stand up over time. It's an example of fine filmmaking and audiences will be tremendously entertained. It's only flaw is that it runs a little long, but that is minor when compared to the whole product. Oscar buzz is very high for this film and it should be nominated across a wide range of categories. I doubt it will win much, being a French film, but might give The Motorcycle Diaries some competition for Best Foreign Film. Look out for an extended cameo by Jodie Foster, sporting her effortless French dialogue in another fine performance.