A Very Long Engagement

In the first shot of this film, the camera moves slowly down a cross. The hand nailed to it is not connected to a body but ends abruptly in a severed arm, dangling and swaying in the wind. A grotesque wartime atrocity? No – it’s the remains of a bombed chapel which is now in the no-man’s-land between trenches. The woman weeping at the bottom of the cross only exists from the waist down. It’s a powerful opening, and although you don’t know it at the time, it prefigures much of what will happen in the film. The disfigurement of a hand. The suggestion of violent death, but the absence of a corpse. The hope for a resurrection.

I think it is unfairly flippant to describe this film as “Amelie goes to war”, which I remember reading somewhere. Jeunet’s penchant for the quirky side-story is admittedly still evident even in some of the “war bits” of this film, such as the running jokes on the “Bingo Crepuscule” trench’s ludicrous name, the master thievery of the platoon cook, and one of the condemned men’s pissing, singing death. When Tina Lombardi, the lover of another condemned man, embarks on a mission of vengeance, tracking down and killing those who sent her man to his death, her murders are more cabaret than carnage. But there is no vaudeville violence in the scenes of people with half their faces blown off, or of Manech spitting his buddy’s entrails out of his mouth after a shell drops on them. (As an aside, I’ve never agreed with Truffaut’s famous statement about there not being such thing as an anti-war movie. Maybe you have to be a man to understand it.)

Visually too, you could rent Amelie on DVD and still enjoy it as much, but this film’s huge sweeping sepia-drenched vistas of lighthouses and water and fields rippling in wind and lovely ornate market buildings look far better on the big screen than they could on a TV.

I’m always hard-pressed to really rave about Audrey Tautou for some reason, but she was certainly very competent here, and I was glad that there were very few of the “gamine moments” which got tiresome for me in Amelie. I was happy to see Marion Cotillard playing Tina Lombardi though, there’s something I always find very charming about her when I see her in films. I wish Jeunet would adopt her as his muse instead of Tautou.

The film gets a little plodding in parts, and sometimes I found myself not really caring whether Mathilde ever finds Manech or not. I can’t quite decide how damning a critique this is. In my view the success or failure of Mathilde’s quest is less important than being able to enjoy the ride, which I did. Even when I was feeling fidgety, there was always something which made me want to keep going, be it a beautiful shot, a good line or an appealing musical phrase in the soundtrack.

The thing is, I can’t help thinking that if Mathilde is so consumed by her quest for Manech, shouldn’t I also be? Perhaps where this movie failed for me, much like Amelie actually, is that I didn’t care enough about its protagonist to put any emotional investment in the outcome of the story. As such, I was able to sail through it wowed aesthetically but unaffected emotionally. I’m guessing Jeunet would be a little disappointed by that.