Saturday, December 18, 2004

A Very Long Engagement

In late November, Viv and I were happy to attend a Cinema Seattle preview screening of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's newest film, A Very Long Engagement. The film stars Audrey Tatou, who also had the lead in Amèlie. The film concerns a young woman's search for her fiancé, missing in the trenches of the First World War. Based on a novel, the film is long and ambitious, and generally succeeds. The nostalgia that Jeunet winked at in his depiction of a lovers' Paris in Amèlie is in full flower. Nearly every frame of the movie tenderly dotes upon the glories of France. Picturesque country farmhouses, the magnificence of Paris in the early twentieth century, and the valor and inventiveness of the French poilu on the lines on the Great War unspool with self-assurance.

All this viewing en rose would be insufferably – ah - cheesy in the hands of any other exponent of Gaul. When he resurrects a demolished Parisian public market, or one of the city's four great train stations on screen, it's like a visit from a loved one who perished in flame and fire. Americans may not be familiar with the landmarks, possibly undermining the appeal Jeunet is shooting for. As for me, I’m a certified cheese-monkey, and gleefully nibbled every stinky slice.

The film is structured as a mystery. After the war’s end, Tatou's polio-lame slip of a girl marshals facts and finds clues to the fate of a group of condemned prisoners among which was counted her beau. As she closes in, Jeunet flashes back to the trenches. The prisoners are all soldiers who have either deliberately or accidentally been shot in the hand and found guilty of the capital offense of self-mutilation. The method of execution chosen is to send the group into the teeth of German fire, alone and unarmed.

The film explores the personal stories of each of the men. The trenches themselves are rendered, as one might expect from Jeunet, with broad scale and muddy, half-flooded relish.

Jeunet intends to offset his nostalgia by slamming us into the trenches, looking at the cost of the Great War. He effectively relates the brutality and filth of the experience. Yet, Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessen and City of Lost Children gleefully explored fantastic, failed worlds in which the brave face of beauty still managed to face the day, and his trenches are reminiscent of these dystopias. Therefore, the horrors he presents are blunted and easily taken for fantastic exaggeration. Unfortunately, he does not help his cause when a German biplane appears over the lines in a crucial plot point. The plane is verbally identified as a specific model of German machine with an unmistakable resemblance to a certain animal, which I won’t name so as not to spoil a minor plot point. The airplane seen on screen appears to be a postwar model, and is clearly not the plane spoken of.

It’s a quibble, surely; but in a postfilm appearance, Jeunet emphasized the verité of his trenches, the lengths to which he and his crew went to achieve an historicist presentation of the halls of mud. If that was indeed his primary goal (something I am skeptical of) he’s failed. I think it’s a forgivable oversight.

The plot's structure is clearly mythic. Our heroine journeys to each of the cardinal directions, departing on each quest from each one of the great train stations of Paris: the Gares du Nord, du Sud, de l'Est and de l'Ouest all make appearances. She journeys to a farm called the End of the World. Eventually, a character descends to the underworld before returning to the surface of the Earth.

From this unlikely set of elements - a nostalgic look at things past; a missing-persons mystery; a gritty war film; and myth - Jeunet has constructed a lovely, sad, and hopeful film that may well appeal to audiences that first saw his work with the justly celebrated Amèlie. As for me, well, I loved it.

I must note, however, that I am a certifiable Francophile, even against my better judgment. As I watched the film, curious, misplaced feelings strongly akin to patriotism stirred in me. Furthermore, I deeply admire Jeunet's films, even the generally dismissed Alien: Resurrection, and so I would say I am likely to find something to admire in anything he does.