Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Movie Review: "A Very Long Engagement"

Starring Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Jean-Pierre Becker, Dominique Bettenfeld
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Following up on the success of 2001's "Amélie," director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and star Audrey Tautou have reteamed for a World War I-era romance that is not entirely the sum of its parts.
"A Very Long Engagement" is an adaptation of the novel by Sébastien Japrisot that centers around Mathilde (Tautou), a young woman who lives in the French countryside with her aunt and uncle and is engaged to her childhood sweetheart Manech (Gaspard Ulliel). Despite receiving word early in the film that her fiancé has been killed fighting for native France in World War I, Mathilde refuses to accept the news, rationalizing that if he were truly dead, she would know.
She sets out to conduct her own investigation into what happened to Manech, leading to the discovery of his unfortunate link with four other soldiers. All five are sentenced to death for intentionally wounding themselves in an attempt to get discharged. Instead of being executed by their army, the five are sent out of the trenches to allow the Germans to do the dirty work, as it were.
And dirty is an apt description of the combat scenes, as the battles take place in rain drenched and cold conditions, with mud enshrouding the landscape as far as the eye can see. Jeunet certainly doesn't shy away from the violence in the trenches – a truly stark contrast to the poetic, beautiful shots he achieves in many of the scenes that follow Mathilde's investigation throughout France. In this respect, he's helped by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who was Oscar-nominated for his work.
The character of Mathilde is a fascinating one, filled with determination and stubbornness, probably built out of her rough childhood. Her parents died when she was very young, followed by a bout with polio that left her with a bad limp. But while Tautou does a good job bringing those persistent qualities of Mathilde to the surface, there is still a sense of distance between her and the audience that doesn't fully engage the emotion of her quest. The fact that her romance with Manech feels half-baked and uninspired certainly doesn't help.
As her investigation deepens, the film turns into a rather engrossing mystery, filled with a multitude of characters that help her fill in various pieces of the puzzle along the way. However, having so many characters come into and out of focus (including an effective small supporting role from Jodie Foster), makes it difficult to keep everyone straight. But much like Mathilde, you feel compelled to follow the quest to its end – no matter what the end result may bring.
While it seemed to be pointing to a truly emotional and possibly overwrought conclusion, its quiet grace seems an appropriate counterpoint for a movie that begins with the horrors of war.
Grade: B
(Rated R for violence and sexuality.)

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