Very Long Engagement, A

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 11/20/04 05:45:44

"The Anti-Cold Mountain"
5 stars (Awesome)

We’re almost beyond the point to utilize the term “fresh” to describe any new film that makes use of a wartime setting. Eighty percent of them since Saving Private Ryan in 1998 were primarily made for the purpose of creating the bigger, better, bloodier battle sequence. The other twenty incorporated romance and longing like this year’s dreadful Head in the Clouds or last year’s epic borefest, Cold Mountain. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has found a story that connects somewhere in the middle, combining the uncompromised bloody horror of war with the aftermath mystery of a heroine just trying to find the boy she loves. Yes, it’s the anti-Cold Mountain.

Jeunet opens the film in only a way he could, taking the fanciful introductory nature of his last film, Amelie, and flipping it on its darkest side. On the frontlines of the Somme in WWI, five men are being trotted out for execution. Each of them had come to the brink of sanity (and some even crossed over) and decided to use the self-inflicted Million Dollar Wound route as their ticket out. Except none of their stories are believed for a second and they are cruelly left to die in whatever crossfire may befall them in the battlefield’s “no man’s land.” Or are they?

Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) met one of these soldiers, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) when they were just children. Stubbornness turned to friendship and thus into romance as teenagers. Mathilde, struck with a hobbled limp at an early age, remains the hopeful sort and can’t believe that her beloved died in such an unimaginable way. She hires a private detective and does a little side investigating of her own to piece together the fractured truth.

Jeunet employs a Rashomon-type of storytelling to unveil the puzzle and I say “type” because he doesn’t mix-up the facts through different points of view to merely trick the audience. Everyone sees what they see, from different angles or use hearsay to protect themselves and/or Mathilde at the same time. With so many characters, timelines and situations overlapping here’s a film where those little reminders I normally despise so much is unquestionably welcome. And Jeunet finds an acceptable, unobstrusive style to keep us in the game.

The visualization of a Jeunet film is almost unmatched in modern cinema. Both dreamlike and expressionistic, his images are like fresh oil paintings brimming with wet color and hyperrealistic foregrounds. With cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, the camera certainly has no fear of movement and capturing shots that sometimes have an anti-gravity emotional pull to them. Just as you’ve been glued or shoved back into your seat by a revelation or moment of austerity, Jeunet lifts the weights and allows us to fly through the courtship of Mathilde and Manech.

Whatever was left at the bottom of the war jar, A Very Long Engagement scrapes more than enough for three meals. The utterly horrific images of battle aren’t hard to capture, but turning them into bursts which we believe can alter futures on a dime is another matter. What causes a man so much scar as to take a gun with no intention to kill, but to maim themselves so badly that they may be forced to live without the use of vital extremities rather than take their chances for another day against strangers in the same predicament? The viciousness of the violence is a given, but its rapidity drives home the point greater than any measurement of blood. Jeunet never shies away and yet finds new ways to present it right down to even the simple act of throwing a grenade.

The film is so overwhelming in its techniques that I feel I’ll need a second viewing just to accept the sheer emotional weight of the final scenes. When we finally get the breakdown from the characters, its not from whom we would expect and their reasons for letting loose is somehow more potent than just the customary joy or sadness. This is masterful filmmaking, telling a story full of surprises that aren’t mere plot twists but images or moments that you’ve never envisioned before and are impossible to let go of. Finally, a film that can be labeled as fresh without the affectation of being just another word.

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