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So much more than Amelie goes to War!,
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This review is from: A Very Long Engagement - 2 Disc Edition [DVD] (DVD)
Five soldiers deliberately injure themselves to escape the trenches. All five are sentenced to death - not by firing squad, but by the simple expedient of being driven out into no-man's-land, there to be killed by German fire.
The execution or judicial murder of troops in the First World War is not a theme which has been extensively developed in France. Stanley Kubrick's 1957 film, "Paths of Glory", explored the subject in detail, but was denied a French showing for nearly twenty years! The French response to 1914-18 has too often been to celebrate 'gloire' and extol the stoic virtues of the poilus who fought and were slaughtered at Verdun. National angst at executions has rarely been on the menu.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film, "A Very Long Engagement", makes prominent the responsibility of the French State for the deaths of exhausted, burned out, and scared Frenchmen. It is a central theme. For every man executed at the Front, there were women and families back home, praying for a reprieve, praying for a miracle.
Audrey Tautou plays a symbolic role ... or perhaps a role she has come to symbolise. Even the French media hailed the film as "Amelie goes to War!" Comparisons have refused to go away. Tautou has a childlike quality which the film exploits: her character, Mathilde, refuses to believe that her lover has died - with so many thousands missing, only the truly innocent would search for one lost soldier. But then, every missing man was important to someone. How many people lived out their lives in the hope that a husband or son or father or lover might still be alive, somewhere?
It's a love story, it's a war film, it's a detective roman ... with comedy and tragedy and drama aplenty. Jeunet portrays nostalgic images of France, trying to recapture a sense of the period. Mathilde's country cottage is all pastoral tranquillity. The trenches are muddy, gory, and loud with violence ... and will rapidly be filled in and restored to meadowland once the war is over, as if the nation can't wait to forget.
Jeunet shoots the film in faux sepia, giving it that contemporary feel, as if he has recorded the very years after the end of war. He departs, somewhat, from Sebastien Japrisot's novel - which he has described as having 'Ameliesque' qualities. Mathilde could be Amelie's grandmother - both films rely on the heroine's dynamic naiveté.
Sentimental in places, cute, quirky, romantic, with episodes of visual poetry, it's hard to describe "A Very Long Engagement" as an anti-war film. It certainly portrays the horrors in grim detail, but it is a portrayal which is somewhat neutered. Perhaps that is inevitable. It is seen from the point-of-view of Mathilde, so some of the images would be sanitised. And the underlying emotion is one of hope, of refusal to give up hope.
Jeunet does make the film more comedic than the book. Perhaps he felt he had to relieve the tension. Perhaps he was exploiting the talents of a wonderful ensemble of actors, for the civilian characters are certainly allowed to indulge in slapstick humour.
Jodie Foster gives a convincing performance as a French mother, trying to get pregnant so her husband will be sent home. She has a pretty much faultless French accent. Her role, meanwhile contrasts with that of Tautou's. Mathilde represents a gentler, more innocent sexuality and femininity. Foster gets quite wanton in her role, while the other major female character, Tina Lombardi, is a whore who parallels Mathilde's search for her missing man ... but with more deadly intent.
Mathilde remains frail, vulnerable - she wears a leg iron in the film, having succumbed to polio as a child. In the book, she is confined to a wheelchair, but uses her parent's riches and the family servants to overcome that handicap. Tautou only uses a wheelchair for occasional effect - to manipulate a couple of men. Otherwise, the leg iron becomes symbolic of her struggle against adversity, her indomitability. Sexually coy, she's the girl back home, the daughter you treasure, the iconic image of French femininity ... devoted, loving, faithful, the young girl who will grow to womanhood and motherhood and raise a nation. It's Joan of Arc, it's Marianne.
So, is "A Very Long Engagement" the exposure of a national wound, the pricking of the national conscience, the first shot in an attempt to restore the good names of all those Frenchmen who were butchered by their own side? Hardly. But it does deliver an Ameliesque blow - naÔve, optimistic, tolerant, understanding. Maybe that's a start. Meantime, it's a very fine film ... and Tautou and Jeunet are apparently already talking about the next one they'll make together.