[box cover]

A Very Long Engagement

Warner Home Video

Starring Audrey Tautou

Written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

There's something fundamentally wrong with people who don't appreciate Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Yes, that's an admittedly high-handed statement, being just another version of the annoying film-geek mantra "Well, you just didn't get it" that's tossed at anyone who disses a much-loved film. Well, a lot of people didn't like the sweet, romantic Amélie. And a surprising number of people didn't like his Gilliamesque weirdnesses Delicatessen or City of Lost Children. And a whole lot of people hated his American debut, Alien: Resurrection (about which this reviewer would happily argue that a revisit might change one's mind, as repeated viewings prove it to be far more complex, dark and witty than your average horror-flick franchise fodder).

At the risk of ticking off the reader at this early stage of the review, though, this must be said — those people were all wrong because those movies are all great. They just didn't get 'em.

One of the very best films released in 2004, Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement ("Un long dimanche de fiançailles") slipped under most moviegoers' radar by hitting U.S. theaters during the last few days of December, after critics' "best-of" lists had been established and the award nominations had already been carved in stone. Engagement received exactly two Academy Award nominations — for Art Direction and Cinematography, both well deserved — and won neither. In Jeunet's native France, the film was nominated for 12 César awards, and won five of them. Critics who managed to see the film before the deadlines for their Top Ten lists praised it — it managed to get awards and nominations from a number of high-profile groups. But it languished at the U.S. box office and most people in the States never even knew it had been released.

*          *          *

Based on a popular novel by French suspense author Sébastien Japrisot, Engagement is a different sort of a film from the quirky director, but one that's still very much his handiwork. At its heart, it's a detective story — although it's also a lovely romance and a brutal war film, and often very, very funny. Amélie's Audrey Tautou stars as Mathilde, a young woman who irrationally believes that her reportedly dead childhood sweetheart, a 19-year-old infantryman named Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), was never really executed in 1917 after attempting to fake an injury to get out of duty. Living with her adoptive parents on the coast of Brittany, Mathilde doggedly seeks out the truth of what happened to Manech, which is revealed though gritty, unsparing flashbacks — as one of five soldiers who were sentenced for self-mutilation (some rightly, some wrongly) Manech was sent out of the trenches to face German fire in the "no man's land" on the battlefield. Helping her to unravel the tale of his fate and those of the other four soldiers is a quirky Parisian private detective (the delightful Ticky Holgado), who Mathilde hires via a newspaper ad.

Despite the drawback of a pronounced limp due to a childhood bout of polio, Mathilde pursues every fragile lead, tricking a lawyer friend of her late father's into helping her by pretending she's confined to a wheelchair, and meeting a number of people who knew the soldiers in both civilian life and at Bingo Crépuscule, the section of trenches where the men were forced over the wall. However, as Mathilde seeks answers, someone else is seeking justice — the sister of one of the infantrymen is systematically killing the officers she holds responsible for her brother's death.

Simply describing the story doesn't do justice to the scope, beauty and humanity of A Very Long Engagement. The unsparing war sequences, illustrating the harsh conditions of battle (one of the doomed men did not, in fact, injure himself on purpose — his gun went off accidentally as he used it to bash one of the many rats in his dank, muddy trench) and the horrific violence of warfare are among the most gut-wrenching ever put on film, and strongly echo Stanley Kubrick's work in Paths of Glory. Yet, using many of the same digital techniques that made Amélie such a rich candy box of color, the "present-day" scenes of Mathilde's search are sumptuously beautiful, from the sepia-toned city scenes to jaunts through the palpably lush French countryside. Jeunet's painstaking recreations of the color-drained WWI battlefields (those who saw Band of Brothers will be familiar with the technique) are contrasted with his equally painstaking recreations of the opulent vegetable markets at Les Halles, the busy Place de l'Opéra, and the golden, idyllic Brittany coast, often colored to look like daguerreotypes or antique postcards.

While Amélie felt, at times, like the director was gleefully playing with CGI as a new toy, here Jeunet uses the skills he learned on that film to serve the movie as a whole. In one awe-inspiring — and very computer-enhanced — set-piece an enormous balloon hangar, used as an emergency hospital, is attacked from the air by the Germans. As the doctors and nurses scramble madly to get the patients to safety, a still-tethered zeppelin breaks loose and drifts slowly upward, inching toward an unexploded bomb sticking through the hangar roof. It's a scene that simultaneously amazes from a technical perspective and thrills because it's so viscerally frightening. Like the film as a whole, this scene is simply masterful, from the skillful direction to the proficiency involved in creating it.

Carrying the story, Audrey Tautou is a marvel — as in Amélie, her pairing with director Jeunet is almost supernatural. With her huge eyes and winsome mouth, just watching the play of emotions across Tautou's face tells more than pages of dialogue ever could. Less deliberately naive than Amélie, her Mathilde is youthful but determined, very brave and almost magically propelled by her blind faith, given that it's almost certain that Manech is actually dead. As we experience the film through her and grow to not only love her but share her journey of discovery, we so want her to be correct about Manech being alive that the film's last act becomes almost painfully tense — whether she will proven right or wrong is completely up in the air until the final frames, and Jeunet never gives away even a hint of how the mystery will resolve.

It's a very rare picture that offers so much that it makes it difficult to describe in just a few words. A Very Long Engagement is a ferocious film that questions the methods used in the conduct of war, an enthralling thriller with a complicated mystery at its core, a gorgeously shot romantic travelogue, and a delightfully funny light comedy at just the points where lightness is needed. A brilliant, moving, underseen film, it makes one yearn for Jeunet's next movie, just to see what else he has up his sleeve.

*          *          *

Warner Home Video's DVD release of A Very Long Engagement offers a stunning anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that does amazing justice to Jeunet's very specific color choices with extraordinary sharpness and excellent contrast. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is superlative as well, with everything clean and crisp — dialogue comes through perfectly, the battlefield scenes make excellent use of all the speakers, and the aforementioned zeppelin scene is served exceptionally well by a good sound system. Angelo Badalamenti's score is showcased beautifully. Gorgeous, in every way.

Disc One offers a terrific commentary track by director Jeunet, although the fact that he's speaking in French — which means English speakers will be reading a subtitled commentary while watching a subtitled film — can be a tad headache-inducing. But it's a wonderful track, with Jeunet detailing absolutely every technical detail from casting to writing to his choice to highlight specific colors and use important props in certain scenes.

Disc Two offers a handful of marvelous "making-of" features — showing, above all else, how much a prescient director can offer a DVD release by making sure he has cameras recording the process while a film's in production. The main feature, "A Year at the Front," is a lengthy (73 min. with 22 chapters), fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary covering pretty much everything involved in making the movie — storyboarding, rehearsals, makeup, costumes, choosing locations, building props, stunts… well, everything. "Parisian Scenes" (13 min.) is just what it sounds like, a featurette on the recreation of Paris in the 1920s, and it's a must for anyone interested in the bizarre, expensive, complex art of using props, sets, and CGI to morph locations for movies. "Before the Explosion…" (12 min.) is devoted to that amazing zeppelin sequence, detailing the use of animatics, set-building, miniatures, and props. Also on board are 14 deleted/extended scenes with optional commentary — Jeunet is a detailed storyboarder and comes to the set with the film already edited in his head, so these are mostly variations on existing scenes.

— Dawn Taylor

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