A Very Long Engagement review by The Grim RinglerThe hell of it with war films is that most filmmakers either try to make just a war film, or just a message film. Rarely do we get a film that tries to do both. So if its just a war film you get a loud, hollow movie that may be realistic but that doesnt move you. And if the message is louder than the bombs you begin to feel as if youre at church and listening to a sermon. You can imagine my surprise and excitement upon seeing Long Engagement and discovering a film that wanted to show war for what it is a vile, nasty thing that leaves no one a winner. We actually see, though briefly, the other side, the enemies (the Germans of the first world war in this case) and how even they pity the lovelorn fiance of the main character as a passing German plane shoots him. So, what we end up here is not just a romance not just a war film, and not just a ghost story (I will explain that aspect), but also a film where everyone has a life, a story, and a consequence because of the war.
The First World War is over and a beautiful young French woman waits for the return of her one true love, a man shes known since she was a child. When she learns that he has died during the war she begins an obsessive quest to find the truth as to how he died, where he died, and whom he had been with when he died. It is a quest that her family wishes she would let go of, but one she cannot relinquish. But her quest for the truth begins to turn up more than she could have hoped for, as she, with the help of an investigator, discovers the stories of the four men her fiance had been condemned to death with for trying to get themselves out of the war by shooting their own hands. She discovers conspiracy, murder, lies, loves, secrets, but most important of all hope. But that hope is tenuous at best as she slowly learns about what happened the day he and the other men were sent out into the no mans land between the French and German forces, a place where not even the grass has survived. And she must slowly come to terms with the fact that he may be dead, and she will need to move on. But can she?
The real beauty here is that the war and the romance take a back seat to what becomes a very engaging and heart wrenching mystery. The magic of this, and every film by director Jeunet is that its the background stories of people that create the soul of the film. A theme he loves is how the lives of ordinary people intersect and weave a tapestry that affects dozens of lives around them, even if we never think of the people changing our lives and us. Yes, this is the story of a woman on a quest for love, but its also a story of war, and the awful price people pay during it. But, I also said that this was a film about a ghost, and so it is. The main character, Matilde (played wonderfully by Audrey Tatou) is essentially a ghost throughout the film. A woman so stricken with grief at the loss of her one true love that she is barely even living, her eyes watching for someone to return who may never come back. Her grief gives this film a power, as much from the direction as her acting, that builds a powerful soul for the movie and makes the romance so powerful. By caring for the background characters you begin to care even more for the main character, worrying over her plight, your own heart breaking a little as she desperately hopes beyond hope.
As with his other films, Jeunet has created a beautiful film that, even though it is realistic it still feels fantastic. He creates worlds with stunning set design and breathtaking photography that are so realistic as to feel surrealistic, taking on a sheen that feels like it is not part of our world. This is truly a film where, in a lesser filmmakers hands, its a sappy romance that feels like another adaptation of the Ulysses myth. But here we have a film where no one is perfect, and to this woman, its love that gets her past her own imperfections. I really regret not seeing this at a theater, as this is a very cinematic movie that deserves that sort of a presentation.
The biggest issue I can find in the film is its almost labyrinthine plot, which turned off one friend and can confuse you if you dont pay attention. As I said earlier, the background characters and their stories are what fill this story in, and the mystery of how Matildes fiance may have died and why he and the other men were condemned and what became of them is the heart of this picture. At first this feels cumbersome and is hard to follow, but as the film progresses you do find that you actually care about what happened to these other men and what became of their lives. I am willing to bet though that that aspect of the film will turn off a lot of people. And really, if you want a movie that gets to the point really quickly and says what it has to say, well, this aint the movie for you. They are in no hurry to solve the riddles they present and, if you are patient, its well worth the time invested, but if you want something more to the point, well, go rent Taxi (the original French film, not the remake) and watch cars race around.
Its great to find a film like Long Engagement for me cause I loathe romance films. Hate them. But if one is done well, the romance takes a backseat to the story of two peoples lives. Thats why I begrudgingly like Garden State and one of the reasons why Napoleon Dynamite doesnt work for me. Its the other people that define and round us off, the people we surround ourselves with, and its their stories that give our own more meaning. And as a statement against war, not a regime, but war itself, this is a powerful story. I am hoping more people discover this film on DVD and give it a chance. I think theyll be very happy they did.
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