Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A Very Long Engagement

2004, France/US, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (original title: Un Long dimanche de fiançailles)

One wonders if, after the enormous international success of Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, Jean-Pierre Jeunet wanted to make something, well, important, substituting the First World War for his more usual world of bizarre happenings and brilliantly-constructed, occasionally black whimsy. There are occasional flashes of his old self - the vignettes that introduce a series of characters early on recall, quite explicitly, the various apartments in Delicatessen, for example - but something in Jeunet's approach seems ill-suited to what remains at heart pretty sombre material (and which remains much sharper-edged in Sebastien Japrisot's 1991 source novel, which gave an especially strong sense of the vast scale of the human losses of the Great War in France). While Jeunet doesn't gloss over the realities of trench combat in the Great War - indeed, he brings a rare sense of the myriad physical discomforts that were a constant of trench life, as well as of the horrors of maimed and destroyed bodies - the sepia-tinted main storyline occasionally seems to belong to an entirely different film, with a rather more Hollywood take on life (the story follows Mathilde - Audrey Tautou - as she attempts to track down her fiancé, who disappeared in the trenches in 1917 after being condemned to death for cowardice). There are, nonetheless, pleasures to be had from individual episodes, as well as the formidable cast, many of them Jeunet regulars. Ticky Holgado deploys his charmingly southern accent to great effect once again in his penultimate appearance, while Dominique Pinon has an unusually affable part; in smaller roles, Jeunet has fun with the usual panoply of unusual faces. The centre of the film is, of course, Tautou, whose gamine charms aren't as appealing here as in Amélie, but that's in large measure the fault of her director, who seems more interested in technical trickery than coaxing a strong performance from his leading lady. Jeunet is prey to the technician's flaw of forgetting the human core of the story under the many layers of digital wizardry, something that also marred La Cité des enfants perdus. It's a mistake that's less excusable in telling this particular tale.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States