A Very Long Engagement (2004)

So, we’ve done Delicatessen and The City Of Lost Children. We skipped Alien Resurrection because I might review it as part of a different set (You probably know which one that is) and we have covered Amelie, so now we’re here. This is A Very Long Engagement (No pun Intended).

Based on the novel by Jean Baptiste Rossi and set in 1919/1920, our story revolves around Mathilde Donnay (played by Amelie herself, Audrey Tautou), as she tries to get to the truth. During the war, five soldiers were sent into No-Man’s Land for getting themselves self-mutilated. Among the five men was Manech Langonnet, Mathilde’s fiancé. While it was documented that all five men were killed, Mathilde refuses to give up the hope that Manech is alive and out there…somewhere. Mathilde, a Polio survivor and orphan who lives with her Aunt and Uncle (Played respectively by Chantal Neuwirth and Dominique Pinon) on a small farm near a lighthouse, seeks the help of the Private Investigator Germaine Pire (Played by Jeunet regular Ticky Holgado), in an attempt to find out what really happened on that day, and what happened to the five soldiers.

Now to look at the truth of these components.

The acting is excellent, with a casting element of who’s who in terms of Jean Pierre Jeunet films. Audrey Tautou and Ticky Holgado, obviously (This ended up being Holgado’s last film with Jeunet, and it was released 8 months after his death from Lung Cancer in January 2004.) as well as Dominique Pinon (Honestly, if he’s not there, can this even be called a Jeunet film?), Urbain Cancelier (Collignon, the obnoxious green-grocer in Amelie), and Jean-Claude Dreyfus (both Chapet The Butcher in Delicatessan and Marcel the Circus performer in The City Of Lost Children). The film also brings back the trend from The City Of Lost Children of having an American among them, and it surprised me when I first saw her. It was Jodie Foster. Her role wasn’t big, but it was pivotal to the plot, and she went all out in her performance. On top of this, a major standout was an actress who, at the time was a little less known…Marion Cotillard. She plays Tina Lombardi, a prostitute who is effectively carrying out what Mathilde is doing…only she has blood on her hands, and a different perception.

The characters, on my part, are not quite as memorable as with other Jeunet films, and I believe the reason is because this film is not only grounded in reality, but also, these are not Jeunet’s characters, but the characters of the author Jean Baptiste Rossi. And while it can be argued that he has provided his own spin on them, I have not read the book to clarify this. They, for the most part, play their roles in aiding Mathilde, but they are not there to be the simplicity of your neighbours celebrated. In fact, if you want to see how much ‘Jeunetism’ was cut from this film, about 10 minutes of deleted scenes will show you. Mathilde is by far the best developed character, and is very likeable…and literally incredible without being a Mary Sue. She’s a young woman with Polio travelling to find the truth, while also taking a step back and knowing that this investigation is best done while being with her family and having her own bed to sleep in every night. Can’t be more admirable than that. When we are given back-stories to the five soldiers, they were (for the most part) less quirky, but are still within the Jeunet style flashbacks. We even got another rhythm scene in one.

The story is divided into 2 parts – Mathilde searching for Manech, the Muddy Mystery of what actually happened that day, and, to a much lesser but rather important extent – Tina Lomardini’s journey. There was an unusual coziness to how Mathilde conducts her investigation, because on her part it requires a lot of waiting, especially when it comes to appointments for interviews with ex soldiers or family of the “Bingo Crépuscule Five”, and letters from the wives of the other soldiers. It had been two or three years since that day in No-Man’s Land, and at this point, Manech is either safe on foot or safe in the ground. With everyone agreeing that it’s most likely the latter. It may be based on a novel, but as we know, not every film based on a novel gets five stars every time. It’s still a really good story with a strong mystery that is a little easier to follow when your mother tongue is french.

The Art direction, which included Aline Bonetto’s Set Design, Madeline Fontaine’s Costume Design, and Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography were incredibly well done! Everything felt authentic, even with the Delbonnel trademark of presenting the film with a very warm lens filter to eliminate white and blue and bring out reds, yellows and greens. And to add more to the who’s who of Jeunet films – Judith Vittet (who played Miette/Crumb in City Of Lost Children) returned, not as an actress, but as an additional costume designer here. Which I thought was a nice little Easter Egg.

The music was composed by the returning Angelo Badalamenti (the sound of Twin Peaks and The City Of Lost Children), who provides incredibly somber and haunting orchestrations for the scenes in the trenches, while also providing some beautifully hopeful music for Mathile’s scenes, and her memories of Manech. What is produced is absolutely top notch, and because of the choice of instrumentals (i.e. a whole orchestra and not just synph keyboard) we end up with melodies were you wouldn’t be able to hear his usual sound if you didn’t know he made it…but when you know it’s him, then that’s when you hear it.

Would I recommend A Very Long Engagement? Well, it’s good to make sure he or she are the right one. But yes, I would recommend this film greatly. It is by far the most serious Jeunet film up to this point, with less emphasis on Fantasy and Science Fiction, and much more on the realism, as it is technically a period piece, but also not his original story to play around with too much. The film still has some comedy in the “present day” scenes to lift the spirits (especially when it comes to Dominique Pinon), but during the flashbacks it chooses to be as such, that even Jean Pierre Jeunet will take a step back and let the horror of the ‘great’ war be what it truly was…Something that should never have happened. Due to some production issues, a Blu-Ray of this film is only available in France, so at the moment getting it on DVD or buying it digitally on Amazon Prime is the way to go. Unless you’re French and don’t mind that I have written this review in English, to whom I say ‘achetez-le et achetez-le bientôt’.

Acting: ****3/4

Characters: ****1/4

Story: ****1/2

Art: ****3/4

CGI/Special Effects:: ****3/4

Music: *****

Cinematography: *****

Overall: ****3/4

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