Friday, February 11, 2005

A Very Long Engagement

I love Amelie. Love it. And I don't usually go in for adorable movies. Generally, when I can identify that a film has its sights set on cuteness, I zone out. This is why most Hollywood romantic comedies don't work for me; they're always about plucky, overly-cute types whom I begin to loathe within the first 10 minutes or so of the film.

But Amelie is different. Clearly, direction Jean-Pierre Jeunet aims to make the film adorable, taking his, well, plucky heroine on a journey of self-discovery. She realizes that her passion for helping others shouldn't prevent her from making herself happy. If there's a more cute storyline for a romantic film set in a dreamy fantasy version of Paris, I haven't thought it up.

With A Very Long Engagement, Jeunet switches gears, from France as a romantic idyll full of chance coincidences and bustling life to France as a war-torn field of fire, with the city walls of Paris providing a melancholy and impermanent solace from the hell outside. But though the time period and urgency of the situation has changed, Jeunet's new film keeps what makes his previous fantasies so light and entertaining. He has crafted an exceptional war film, balancing the unspeakable horrors of battle with the optimistic hopes nestled in the heart of every soldier - that he will go home again, that things will return to normal, that he will be reunited with his one true love.

Jeunet's film is admirable for its scope and magnitude. In just over two hours, we meet dozens of soldiers, soldier's wives, Parisians, detectives, carpenters, whores and on and on and on. This is in addition to a couple outrageously gruesome battle scenes, a storyline about a serial killer taking out prominent French officers, and an incredible set-piece in which a hydrogen-filled zeppelin collides with a bomb, setting an entire warehouse ablaze.

Everything ties together through the odyssey of one woman, a cripple named Mathilde (played by Amelie star Audrey Tautou). Her soft-spoken, "simple" lover Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) has been arrested at the French front for intentionally injuring his own hand (he holds it up over the trench for a German sniper to see). In 1917, he was sentenced to death and thrown out of the French trench, to fend for himself in the battle-torn field between the French and German forces known as no-man's-land.

Now, it is 1920, and Mathlide has no real reason to hope that her lover is alive. As her parents died in an accident during her youth, he lives with her aunt and uncle, an amusing pair who provide the film with much-needed comic relief. But she's a superstitous girl, and believes that somehow, she'd know that her lover had died. So she sets out to use all of her inheritance money to find Manech, or at least find out what happened to him after being sent out of the trench.

And this provides the format of the movie, just as it does with Citizen Kane. The truth is slowly uncovered, but only after hearing the personal accounts of a variety of witnesses, from the French soldier who brought Manech hot chocolate before his sentence to the prostitute who loved another one of the condemned men to a German woman whose lover told her of the sweet Frenchman carving his names onto a burned-out tree in the middle of a war zone.

And these accounts often take us far away from the simple story of Mathlide and Manech. This is really the power of Jeunet's film. He's unafraid to digress, to distract the audience with a variety of stories rather than focusing on his main narrative. In this way, he's made a film about the whole of France in the aftermath of WWI, and the horrible toll the war took on the lives of every single citizen.

In Amelie, there's a memorable sequence in which Tautou's character wonders aloud how many people are having an orgasm right at that moment. We then cut to a lightning-fast montage of a variety of unknown couples engaging in the sex act, after which Amelie reveals to the camera that the answer is 15 (or 14...I haven't seen the movie in a while). A Very Long Engagement seems to ask us the question, "How many people in France have lost someone important in battle?" And the answer is "all of them."

But, as I said, despite the violence of the battle scenes and the pessimism which Mathlide repeatedly encounters, this is a charming, hopeful film. All the scenes of Paris are shot with a soft golden glow, in contrast to the dark blues and greys of the front lines. And though the viewer is given no greater indication of Manech's fate than Mathilde, we come to share her optimism despite all the evidence. Each new clue brings Mathlide closer to Manech, and us closer to Mathlide.

Part of the film's success of course comes from its amazing visual effects, lovely cinematography and absolutely fantastic art direction (nominated this year for a much-deserved Academy Award). This competes with Sky Captain for the title of Best Looking Film of the Year. But the amazing effects work (just look at that shot above with Mathlide at the lighthouse! Amazing!) never overpowers the real human sentiment on screen.

Jeunet has made a film overflowing with intelligence, creativity and stunning designs. Just as the major plot point becomes a puzzle - how could a French soldier survive standing up in front of enemy lines - the movie itself is filled with little tricks, riddles and "games." At one point, a man is shot by a gun tied to a woman's belt, triggered by the chain on her glasses. In another scene, an off-key music box hides a secret message. And I've already mentioned that incredible sequence where a zeppelin slowly drifts upwards, nearly colliding with a bomb. The craftsmanship required to pull these sequences off, to not tire the audience with an endless string of overdone set pieces, amazed me to no end.

Because of his love for humanity and above all his clever, quirky style, Jeunet has made a war film with more impact and hope than any other in recent memory. Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan opens with a grandiose display of technical and filmmaking ability of the highest order, but fell apart when it tried to explore the changes war brings about in those who fight. Terrance Malick's The Thin Red Line gives us a few great battle scenes, but the sequences with the soldiers are bloated, silly and self-important. But here is a film that unflinchingly shows us brutality in the same sequence with true love, that dares to connect the numbing destruction of one of the 20th Century's most brutal conflicts with the romantic character of the French people.

This is an incredible film. I sense another update will be necessary in my Top Ten of the year list.

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