versione originale italiana

A Very Long Engagement

Courage and cowardice
a review by Paola Galgani

translation by Patrizia Schiazza

  Un long dimanche de fiancailles, France/USA, 2004
directed by Jeanne-Pierre Jeunet, starring Audreu Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Jean-Pierre Becker, Dominique Bettenfeld, Julie Depardieu

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director of Amélie (Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, 2001), has chosen to share his long-life dream with the most part of his previous cast, from the main actress Audrey Tautou and the screenplayer Giullame Laurent to Dominique Pinon, Rufus and Jean-Claude Dreyfus. But this time the film deals with a love story that falls into the noir genre, while World War I sets the visual mood. The theme of the movie almost obsessed Jean-Pierre Jeunet from his teen age, when he decided to visit the gruesome Douaumont Ossuary, fascinated by the storytelling of a great-uncle of his. What mostly attracted him was the execution of French soldiers charged of self-inflicted injury during the Great War, a page of History the French are willing to forget. As soon as Jean-Pierre Jeunet read Sèbasten Japrisot’s novel, he wished to make the movie version. A Very Long Engagement was produced by Warner France, final budget being 46 million euros, and got two Academy Award nominees. In spite of the fact that all the actors involved are French, France persists in thinking the movie as an American craft.
The story is about Mathilde, an obstinate and charming Breton girl. Life didn’t treat her very kindly: her parents died in her childhood and she is lame because of poliomyelitis. Nevertheless, she grew up with her caring aunts and has a fond love relationship with her long time friend Manech, a naive and dreamy lighthouse keeper. When war breaks out, the bizarre couple has to split and Manech leaves to Somme with his heart broken. Mathilde gets news about him only two years later when she is informed by a sergeant that Manech - not able to stand living in the trench without her news - had purposely his hand shot just to be dismissed from the army. But the trick was immediately discovered and he was charged of self-inflicted injury along with four fellow soldiers, following a brief trial. Then he was left as dead in the trench. But the obstinate girl doesn’t believe in his death, desperately and convulsively seeking him or - at least - the final truth about him and his fellow soldiers.
The film opens with spectacular war scenes, the bombing scenes and the soundtrack bringing to mind masterpieces like Stanley Kubrick's Paths of glory and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. The dolly shots along the trench resemble Delbert Mann's All quiet on he Western Front, while the use of narration from main character's point of view seems to be taken from Bernard Tavernier’s Life and Nothing But (La vie et rien d'autre, 1989). In the second part, the movie shifts decidedly into a noir mood through Mathilde’s ethereal but firm voice: she leads us into her own original point of view about life and her astonishing stubbornness which drives her to fight against the whole world. We are taken into a world of dreamy soldiers, good-hearted rascals, revengeful prostitutes, and heartless adventurers. Finally, it becomes clear that Mathilde’s investigation doesn't involve only Manech’s life but a whole nation.
A Very Long Engagement shows an accurate historical research - based on the work done in the homonymous novel. The choice of setting the story in 1917 - the outbreak of Russian Revolution - is even more significant: during that year, a widespread feeling of bewilderment began to sneak among the armies involved in the war. The soldiers felt that the situation they were thrown in by their own countries couldn’t give them any chance to react: the war’s mechanism was too overwhelming. A growing anarchic feeling is present throughout the movie, embodied in the soldier who helps Mathilde during the last part of her investigation: she will slap the same soldier when he exalts anarchy. The state of uncertainty that runs through the film is reflected by the real-life stories of soldiers who used to steal their dead comrades’ identities to escape from war. Even Manech’s destiny will bring him back to a sort of quiet and childlike astonishment.
The visual rendering widely employs striking digital effects. The reconstruction of the muddy trenches is amazing, thanks to talented set decorator Alihe Sonetto and photographer Bruno Delbonnel (the latest has been working with Jeunet for 25 years). The “nobody’s land” of prisoners embodies the vacuum where those nameless living ghosts must survive, as well as this land's spectral hall, named mockingly after a play yard. The locations are beautiful as well: the vertiginous height of little Manech’s lighthouse; a view of Paris where Mathilde decides to venture all alone - in spite of her handicap; the village where the young woman used to live with her uncles, more straightly portrayed but still full of peculiar humanities - like the postman, a funny caricature.
The supporting characters always show strong identities: a sensational Jodie Foster, perfectly at ease, portays a soldier’s wife thrown by her husband into his best friend’s arms to secure husband's return from the front; also worth of notice are the prostitute who ends up beheaded after avenging his lover and the unscrupulous commander who is horribly punished.
Surely, the ghost of Amélie is everywhere: watch her daily little superstitious practices, or her ironic way to talk about her birth and childhood - although Audrey Tautou tries hard to get rid from her former role. The clear and sharp photography is such a reminder to Amélie’s world, that even the beautiful end titles' artificially aged images bring to mind her odd pictures. Moreover, it's just Mathilde and Manech’s original and naive state of mind that drives them into the world and keeps them apart from any harm.