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Film Review: A Very Long Engagement

Un Long Dimanche de Fiancailles (A Very Long Engagement) (2004; Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet)

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie follow-up is a stunning visual feast. A melange of oddball humour, Gallic soulfulness, and soft-focus romantic gravitas, it may even outstrip its widely-beloved predecessor in terms of pure cinematic verve and visionary cleverness.

The cast is solid if mostly unremarkable, I suppose; Audrey Tautou’s pixie-hood doesn’t match the material as closely as she did in Amelie, if a more specific criticism has to be filed. Still, the detective-story plot holds interest with its u-turns and corkscrews. But this film is most notable for a cornucopia of astounding images that Jeunet and his talented cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (who also shot Amelie and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) unleash on a scene-by-scene basis. We travel from the hellish drabness of World War I trenches, the rich earthy textures of colourful Brittany, the busy kaleidoscope of post-Gilded-Age Paris, and dry, sun-baked Corsica. No matter where the twisting plot takes us, everything looks absolutely amazing, and Jeunet plants clever visual gags and other small nuances all over the frame, in his trademarked trickster-auteur style.

The scenes at the Somme benefit especially from Jeunet’s absurdist wit, which is quite apt to capture the loosely-organized chaotic madness of the Western Front. Although it adds up to far more than a simple war film, A Very Long Engagement offers one of the most particular and strangely moving documents of a destructive conflict whose enduring profile in the public imagination is shifting gradually out of living memory and into ahistorical nationalistic whitewashing. The French experience of any 20th-Century war is quite evidently vastly different than that of the British, American, and Canadian perspectives that those of us in the Anglophone world are most familiar with, to say nothing of the view from Germany or points further east. Glib, Second World War-vintage jibes about Gallic habits of surrender and collaboration aside, it’s easy to elide France’s extensive trauma in the Great War, in which their national losses outstripped those of the whole of the British Empire forces and the American Expeditionary Force combined (only the Germans and the Russians suffers higher casualties).

From the national memory of such horrid attrition, Jeunet wrings out tragic pathos but also a resistant strain of particularly French flippant dismissiveness of sentimentality and jingoism. The tone of A Very Long Engagement is never too heavy, but it’s never irresponsibly light either. It’s no grinding anti-war epic, but not entirely a sappy melodrama either. All told, this balance along with his usual visual acumen makes for a unique and absorbing film experience.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. February 4, 2013 at 8:45 am

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