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29 March, 2005

Review: A Very Long Engagement (2004)

Now that's quality cinema.  Compared to the Hollywood trash I sat through last week... well, it doesn't compare.

I can't point to specific indicators, but 'Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles' was unmistakably a film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Some of the street scenes were reminiscent of 'The City Of Lost Children', and the way sentimentality was diffused by apparent surrealism (which actually all made perfect sense) was characteristic.

The basic plot outline (established early or even in promo material, so I can safely reveal it) is that a woman's fiancé is missing, presumed executed in the First World War, but she has doubts and searches for more information. In a typical Hollywood movie, that'd be enough to clearly categorise the genre and leave the audience in no doubt of an obvious outcome (that she's bound to find him alive and well), but not this time. I was aware of barely breathing through the final minutes, right until the closing second.

Essentially, this was a detective story, and as is conventional, the story unfolded to the audience and Mathilde at the same time, each time she discovered something new, mainly by speaking to the various witnesses of certain key events. The same key scenes were repeated from their individual viewpoints; no one person had seen it all, so each conversation added more, and occasionally corrected mistaken earlier interpretations.

Audrey Tautou was excellent as Mathilde, childlike in innocence and stubbornness, without being childish. She easily carried the story, but she primarily provided a central thread through very much an ensemble film. Even minor characters had fully-rounded subplots, and just enough was conveyed to let one know a little about each as a person, without the plot being bogged-down in digressions. That can't have been easy.
Regular Jeunet cast-member Dominique Pinon had a relatively minor role, but provided essential support as Mathilde's uncle. Other familiar faces (Denis Lavant, Tchéky Karyo, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Elina Löwensohn) are little-known by Anglophone audiences, though one cast member obviously set the audience thinking "isn't that.... no, it can't be...". It's a distraction, but a minor one.

I don't speak French, and understand little more, so I can't comment on the original dialogue, but the quality of the translation was high, reproducing an elegance to the wordplay even in the subtitles.

The special effects were excellent. There were more pyrotechnics than a typical Hollywood action movie, yet nothing felt grandiose and what could only have been CGI fitted unobtrusively. All too often, the effects scream "look at me! aren't I clever?!", but this was an instance of CGI filling in the unfilmable, yet reproducing reality.

I do have one fairly major criticism, but I can't comment without spoiling the suspense. It's a matter of tone; I'll leave it at that, and merely mention a related issue. In places, I thought the production was a little too pristine and pretty. For example, in an early scene in a muddy trench, the mud remained underfoot; props and uniforms seemed a little too clean. There were spectacularly uncompromising exceptions, but they were exceptions, and I feel a little of the true squalor and ongoing horror was understated. Then again, several other aspects were similarly understated, and the light touch worked perfectly. At least three moments were genuinely erotic, because they weren't explicit. I'll certainly praise the production for it's contemporary 1920s feel, in part because it was filmed with a slight sepia colour cast, which also added a warmth rendering even the merely quaint beautiful.

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