Wednesday, April 13, 2016

WAR MOVIE OR ROMANCE? A Very Long Engagement (2004)

                I am working my way through movies that could potentially make the field for my Best WWI Combat Movie Tournament.  It was suggested that I consider the French film “A Very Long Engagement”.  It has been sitting in my queue for some time, but I have not been motivated to see it because of my impression that it was not really a war movie.  Let’s see.

                The movie was released in 2004 and got some critical recognition.  It was nominated for Academy Awards for Art Direction and Cinematography.  The movie was directed and co-written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and is based on a novel by Sebastien Japrisot.  The movie is very French, but does include Jodie Foster in the cast.

                The movie opens with a shot of a damaged crucifix in no man’s land.  Subtle.  It is Jan. 6, 1917 and a group of five condemned poilu are being led to their place of execution.  We get a little back-story on each and a flashback to their offense.  It turns out they all were court-martialed for self-inflicted wounds.  Specifically, a bullet through the hand.  The last is the twenty year-old Manech who is suffering from shell shock.  His method was holding up a lit cigarette at night to attract the attention of a German sniper.  The creative punishment is for the five to be shoved into no man’s land so the Germans can finish them off.  The movie then jumps two years to his fiancé Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) who is pining for him in the picturesque French countryside.  She refuses to believe he is dead and hires a detective to search for him.  She gets involved too.  Interviewing friends and family of the ill-fated quintet allows for some fleshing out of the characters.  This includes the Manach/Mathilde romance.  The film is very non-linear.  There is a mysterious subplot involving a prostitute named Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard) who is assassinating some of the officers involved in the incident.  Another subplot has the wife (Jodie Foster) of one of the condemned trying to get pregnant as per her impotent husband’s request.  She has a brief affair with Biscotte’s best friend Bastoche.  Bastoche is the one who accidentally shot himself in the hand while trying to kill a rat.  There is something of an “Odyssey” feel to the characters and tales.  There is also a mystery to be solved as apparently the punishment did not go as smoothly as the villainous court-martial board had hoped.  Could some of the five have lived?  It would be amazing if they did.  But this is a movie, after all.
is it a war movie?  well ...

                “A Very Long Engagement” is an interesting movie.  Is it a war movie?  I would describe it as a romance/mystery/war movie.  Most of the movie is set after or before the war.  There is not that much on the soldiers in the war.  The combat is brief and there is little soldier life.  The movie does indict French military justice, but it does not hammer that theme.  Although four of the five self-mutilations are related to the horrors of the fighting, the plot does not spend a lot of time making us understand why the men were driven to this.  You won’t get a feel for why the French army mutinied from this movie.  But the punishment was really a plot device to set up the parted lovers template.

                That plot needed a lot of manipulation and disbelief suspension.  Since the movie was not really meant to be a traditional war movie, I was able to overlook some of the outrageous plot developments.  I think Jeunet meant for the film to be surreal in spots.  For example, Bastoche knocks down a German plane with a grenade.  More egregious is a regrettable scene that crosses the line by having a hospital set up in a barrage balloon hanger with explosive results.  I love massive fiery explosions as much as the next guy, but come on!  Much of the plot is implausible, but what the heck.  After the five hand wound opening, you know what you are in for.
Damn, that plane is flying so low a person could knock it down with a grenade!

                Once I got over the fact that the movie was untraditional, I was able to enjoy the ride.  The acting is excellent with Tautou perfect as the spunky Mathilde.  She is lame from polio and plays a tuba.  She is not the only eccentric character.  The detective Pire (Ticky Holgado) brings a lot of fun in his search.  Tina Lombardi is a bizarre, but mesmerizing figure.  Jodie Foster’s Elodie is more than stunt casting, she’s a key to the mystery.  Speaking of eccentricities, the cinematography is the most memorable thing about the movie.  Bruno Delbonnel has some pizazz to his craft.  The movie has some awesome visuals.  He likes to have double images appearing together.  One is the present and the other a flashback.  To add spice, the flashbacks sometimes differ from the original flashback, which is the way memory sometimes works.  These baubles tend to overshadow some of the film’s flaws.  I need to see the movie again to figure out what was up with that coded letter, for instance.  I also am unclear why their commanding officer tore up the pardons. 

                Pairing romance and war has not been particularly successful for war movie fanatics like myself.  This movie is an exception.  It is not that it provided enough action and violence.  The film is definitely balanced for both sexes.  It really is more geared towards the female audience, but guys won’t sigh throughout.  That does not mean I did not shake my head a few times.  But it is what it is and that’s not bad if you go in knowing that. 


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