I vow to do no more retroactive tinkering with my Top 22 of 2004 list (Clint, you’re Best Actor to stay), but had I waited until Thursday to post the list, and the article, I would have had to find room for Jean –Pierre Jeunet’s magnificent A Very Long Engagement. The movie reunites the director with the star of his previous hit Amelie, the sprightly sprite Audrey Tautou, but those expecting the kind of arched-eyebrow whimsy of that first director-actress collaboration are in for a much different sort of journey from this new film. Not that Amelie’s admirers should automatically be expected to reject Engagement’s rather more grim tone, but the reverse does seem to be true-- some of those who disdained the uncut sweetness of the former seem to have shown much more receptiveness to the latter’s potent mixture of sweetness, grotesquerie and undiluted romantic yearning.
A Very Long Engagement is an adaptation of a well-regarded book of the same name by Sebastian Japrisot that, by all firsthand testimony (I have not read the book myself), retains the complexity, and the attendant pleasures therein, of the novel’s structure. Translating this observation into my own experience, I found myself marveling throughout my viewing at how adeptly Jeunet juggles all the strands of the plot—strands that could have been easily entangled and lost in confusion in less nimble hands—and how his response to that narrative challenge translates into pure enjoyment for his audience.
Tautou plays Mathilde, a young woman afflicted by polio (mobile here, Mathilde was confined to a wheelchair in the novel) whose boyfriend, Manech, is one of five soldiers in the trenches of World War I France sentenced to certain death as punishment for self-mutilation (hands tied, they are dumped into the no-man’s land between the French and German lines to await eventual execution at the hands of the enemy). Mathilde’s perhaps too-starry-eyed romantic sensibility is fed by the whims of chance—she lends significance to random occurrences, such as a dog entering a room before a beloved uncle announcing dinner, in order to feed her seemingly irrational belief that, despite all evidence to the contrary, Manech is somehow, three years after the fact, still alive. The movie is constructed, with all the brilliant wide-screen flourishes Jeunet and his masterful cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel can muster, as a kind of sprawling detective story—Mathilde uses personal belongings, letters and the help of a private detective (not to mention the boundless funds available to her due to the untimely deaths of her parents), to track down the fates of the five soldiers and their loved ones, whose stories intertwine and illuminate each other with the allusiveness and expansiveness of literature.
Jeunet might exhibit signs of a short attention span at times (the narrative hurtles forward at such a pace that sometimes you want a little more time to soak in the rapturous imagery), but God bless him, he hasn’t a myopic bone in his body. He’s not afraid of potentially derailing Mathilde’s narrative quest to take long asides with the rest of his bounteous cast, all wonderful actors (Denis Lavant, Albert Dupontel and Jerome Kircher, as well as Chantal Neuwirth and Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon, among many, many others) who are allowed, by the director’s grand, confident approach, to show just how wonderful they can be. This roster of talent, mostly unfamiliar to American audiences, also includes a cameo appearance by a well-known American actress who is perhaps better here than she has been in a lead role in several years, and French actress Marion Cotillard, as the Corsican lover of one of the doomed soldiers, who takes upon herself a vengeful parallel course with Mathilde’s investigation, cleverly eliminating those she knows to hold some responsibility for her lover’s death. Cotillard has a graceful physical beauty and piercing blue eyes, very similar to those of Zooey Deschanel, used to chilling effect. The scenes in which she encounters and dispatches her victims are marvelous set pieces of cunning cinema in which Jeunet cuts loose with the kind of devilish cackle that will be familiar to those who loved his Delicatessen.
Jeunet sports the obsessive precision of a master clockmaker—his movies, including Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children (both co-directed with Marc Caro), have a distinctive, lived-in, jerry-rigged feeling that feeds an impish impulse for control—grafted onto the seat-of-your-pants instincts of a true entertainer. It’s this entertainer’s pulse that courses through the movie, in much the same way that Manech claims to feel Mathilde’s heartbeat in his hand, even after it’s been brutally disfigured. One might expect a movie partially about the grotesque horrors of World War I to be somewhat stone-faced and exhibiting a certain level of piety about its subject. But Jeunet manages to balance seriousness about the soldiers’ experience—these sequences are astonishments of texture and horror and empathy—with his abilities to use the language and techniques of cinema to construct his film in such a way that they are never given too much weight.
It is, after all, Mathilde’s heartbeat that is also the film’s, and Tautou, while never unleashing Amelie’s disarming smile, digs deeper here and gets the audience on her side by sheer force of will, Mathilde’s and her own. She isn’t a particularly surprising actress, but Jeunet, in his two films, finds what it is that connects her to an audience’s sympathies and builds on it, rather than shoving it down our throats, and allows her her own moments to breathe as well. When Mathilde does use a wheelchair it’s not for need or sympathy, but to cunningly manipulate a sympathetic but somewhat patronizing lawyer into going beyond the call for her and her investigation, and Tautou pulls off these moments with quiet comedy, with the saucy thrust of someone who knows what she can get away with and is unable to resist pushing just a bit further.
Those tendencies toward girlish arrogance, mixed with the character’s panicked romantic yearning, her need to keep her hope alive, strengthen Tautou's performance—Mathilde certainly needs something more Amelie’s smile to hold the center of this movie. But the pushing of boundaries is Jeunet’s strategy too. The Panavision frames he and Delbonnel compose are so well utilized, filled to the edges with trickery and filigree and important information that may not register until a few seconds or minutes after it has passed, that the movie comes to resemble nothing so much as a contraption constructed not just to express the joy of its makers—a filmmaker’s obsessive need to tell a story-- but the joy of the contraption itself. Few filmmakers can get away with this kind of celebration of technique without appearing cold and manipulative, but it seems to be Jeunet’s raison d’etre. A Very Long Engagement is the opposite of a clockwork orange; its gears and hinges and swivels and pins are all out in the open, a beautiful toy to be delighted in and amazed by, and on the inside, a heart of bittersweet fruit to be enjoyed and by which to be moved.
And for those of you who care to go back to Tuesday’s posting, you can situate A Very Long Engagement at number six, right between Dawn of the Dead and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Sorry, Hellboy. But you’re still my favorite movie of the year about a reluctant, cigar-chomping, demonic superhero!