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Moriarty Flirts With A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT!!

Published at: Nov. 20, 2004, 7:28 p.m. CST by staff

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s new film is a demanding emotional epic that is alternately absorbing and frustrating, beautiful at times, elaborate but occasionally overloaded with the director’s trademark digressions. Anyone hoping for the same sort of effervescent confection as AMELIE is going to be taken aback, but for longtime fans of this unique visual stylist, this will definitely feel like a logical addition to his already amazing filmography.

I’ll say this about Warner Independent Pictures... they’ve had a strong first year. I’m a huge fan of BEFORE SUNSET, and they made respectable attempts with films like CRIMINAL and WE DON’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE. Jeunet’s film is easily the most ambitious thing they’ve released so far, a story told on a scale that seems more appropriate to a regular studio release than a specialty division. This won’t be an easy sell for Warner Independent, though, even with the goodwill that AMELIE generated around the world. Yes, he’s got Audrey Tautou as his star again, but this is a darker film, more demanding. You’ll hear people make comparisons between this film and last year’s COLD MOUNTAIN, and on a surface level, that’s sort of true. A war splits up a pair of lovers, and despite incredible odds, hope for a reunion endures. The focus of A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT is different though, and the film plays more as a mystery than a romance.

The movie opens during World War I. Five soldiers stand accused of intentional self-mutliation, each of them having damaged their trigger hands somehow. When Jeunet shows how each of the five men got wounded, you know right away who’s behind the camera. Nobody stages a digression the way he does, and it’s both his greatest strength and his biggest weakness. There’s no denying that he can find endlessly fascinating ways to stage these moments, but sometimes it seems like he’s more interested in the oddball little details than he is in just telling his primary story. One of the soldiers, Manech Etchevery (Gaspard Ulliel), is, although not technically innocent, far more childlike than the others, and his desire to go home comes from something other than just a hatred for the war, but he’s taken with the four other soldiers to face court-martial just the same. All five are found guilty, but instead of execution, they are punished by being pushed out into the no-man’s-land between the French and German trenches. In effect, the French are hoping the Germans will do the job for them.

Three years later, the war is over and people are trying to move on with their lives. Or, at least, most people are. Not Mathilde, though. Audrey Tautou plays Mathilde, Manech’s fiancée. They grew up together and shared a profound connection, and as a result, she is convinced that no matter what the official record says, Manech did not die in the war. She believes that if Manech was dead, she would know. She lives with her uncle Sylvain (Dominique Pinon) and her aunt Benedicte (Chantal Neuwirth), her parents long since dead. She inherited quite a bit of money when they died, so when people tell her to get over Manech and to let it go, she refuses. She pressures her family lawyer, Pierre Rouvieres (Andre Dussollier) into helping her investigate the circumstances around the incident at Bingo Crepuscule. Eventually, she also has to hire a private investigator, Germain Pire (Ticky Holgado), not caring what it costs her, no matter how much she is pressured to stop what everyone else sees as pure folly.

The investigation brings Mathilde into contact with a huge cast of supporting characters, and Jeunet shuttles us back and forth in time as each new puzzle piece is revealed. What appears clear-cut at first, even when we witness certain events with our own eyes, turns out to be far more complicated. Things are made more difficult for Mathilde by someone else following the same clues as her, someone connected to one of the other five soldiers who supposedly died. Unlike Mathilde, though, they’re not looking for answers; they’re looking for revenge. And all of Mathilde’s leads are starting to turn up dead.

The adjective that best describes the screenplay by Jeunet and Guillame Laurent is “exhausting.” It’s almost overloaded with incident, and Mathilde spends the entire film rushing from place to place. The end result is that the film is so busy that some of the most important emotional beats fall flat. It seems like the thing Jeunet is least interested in, but the way the film is structured, he’s obviously hoping to emotionally obliterate us. Visually, this is a feast, a sumptuous, lush production. Bruno Belbonnel is a tremendously talented director of photography, and he’s done just as strong a job here as he did with AMELIE, but he’s managed to create a completely different visual palette this time. The recreations of World War I are striking, both beautiful and horrible. It’s strange... World War I seems to me to be incredibly potent dramatic fodder, but it’s woefully underrepresented on film. PATHS OF GLORY, sure. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, absolutely. But whereas you can name 20 great films about WWII or VietNam without even thinking about it, Jeunet had an opportunity here to claim some of this imagery as his own. He gets the mud and the stink and the horror right, and more than anything, he underlines just what a surreal and absurd abomination this particular war was. In fact, all of the period detail is stunningly realized. When people bitch about digital effects ruining film, what they’re really complaining about is the use of special effects to cover up for narrative deficiency. When you see how Jeunet uses digital technology to recreate a specific time and place, you realize that it’s just another tool, like color or sound, and it’s only a problem in the hands of a lazy filmmaker. As good as the film looks, the images are given beautiful support by Angelo Badalamenti’s score, a romantic and ethereal thing that seems fairly atypical of this composer’s work.

There are any number of eccentric and wonderful performances in the film, and it’s hard to pick out which ones to highlight and compliment. Obviously the weight of the film rests on the slender shoulders of the always-adorable Audrey Tautou, and she does everything she can with the character of Mathilde. To an extent, though, she feels more like a collection of mannerisms than a fully realized character. She’s got all these quirky habits and this indefatigable positivity, and it’s charming, but I’m not sure I buy it. Jeunet stacks the deck a bit, too. For example, she had polio as a child, so she still has one lame leg, and it’s almost a game the way she uses her affliction to her advantage. It’s obvious why Jeunet adores Tautou. She wears her soul so close to the surface that you feel like she’s letting you in on a secret in her best moments. Other directors have pushed her to play against that innate sweetness, but Jeunet practically canonizes her. Longtime Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon doesn’t have a huge role, but he does a nice job in all his scenes. I think Gaspard Ulliel is miscast as Manech. He simply doesn’t have the charisma to drive the film. He’s not bad in his scenes with Tautou, and there’s a sweetness between the two of them in the flashbacks to better days, but the day after the film, it’s hard to even remember his face. I completely forgot that Jodie Foster was supposed to be in the film, so when she showed up as Elodie Gordes, I was surprised. Her French is flawless, though, and she gives one of her patented raw nerve performances. It’s not distracting at all, and she doesn’t unbalance the picture the way some star cameos do. In fact, it’s one of the most emotionally satisfying subplots of the film. I’m also a big fan of the work by Marion Cotillard, who was so fetching in this year’s LOVE ME IF YOU DARE. There’s a great doomed quality to her character in this film.

What bothered me most in the film is the ending. I won't reveal which was the wind blows for Mathilde and Maneche, but Jeunet sets up several story threads that I think he fails to pay off. The result is one of muted emotion, no matter what you expected to see. After all the frantic energy expended, it feels like we've earned more than this as a conclusion. It left me disappointed as I walked out, and I had to set aside that immediate impression to appreciate the film's other charms. Overall, even if I don’t think the film delivers as a whole, there are plenty of individual moments that stand head and shoulders above most of what I’ve seen this year. The ultimate fate of the makeshift hospital in the zeppelin hangar, the relationship between Mathilde’s uncle and the mailman, the barman with the wooden hand... these are the touches that make Jeunet’s A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT a worthwhile investment of time.

"Moriarty" out.





Readers Talkback

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  • Nov. 20, 2004, 8:15 p.m. CST

    wow, have all the talkbacker's gotten lives????

    by AshesOfDonnie

    haha well another film in my must see list. I love Jeunet and It's about WWI, which we don't have enough films about. either way it should be satisfying.

  • Nov. 20, 2004, 8:44 p.m. CST

    A new record.

    by Floyd Gondolli

    Two posts and no one has mentioned Alien: Resurrection... sorry, I really do like all of his films and can't wait for this one. Anyway, why there is no other Ain't-It-Coolers? I suppose it's because it's Saturday night and they are all leading busy social lives... nah.

  • Nov. 20, 2004, 9:55 p.m. CST

    dead on

    by SubversiveRusski

    saw the movie a week ago and you're right on the nose. Not a word I disagree with.

  • Nov. 20, 2004, 10:16 p.m. CST

    Good review, but. . .

    by Coenbro

    I saw the film and have to say the Mori's review is spot on. Good moments, but the film just doesn't resonate. By the way, Manech is not innocent Mori. He puts his hand over the trench with the lit cig on purpose. But I am not suprised you were confused. This whole film was confusing,

  • Nov. 21, 2004, 10:41 a.m. CST

    Jeunet

    by moviemaniac-7

    So it's not brilliant, but good? Shit. I am going to see it and try to love this. It is one of the movies I've been looking forward to; even more than Revenge of the Sith. Anyhow... we'll see. And about Alien: Resurrection: Entertaining one, but not up to the genius of the previous three (I'm one of the few that will the film even Fincher won't even defend). Whedon and Jeunet could've a made better one. Too bad.

  • Nov. 21, 2004, 6:02 p.m. CST

    President Evil. C'mon, you can't be that evil.

    by Floyd Gondolli

    I think it's better that people like me, or indeed you, mention Alien: Resurrection rather than some whiny shit-eating little bitch who hates the movie. Those WS-ELBs should just keep their bullshit to themselves. Who knows, maybe by reading positive comments from fans of the movie, they may be discouraged from posting pointless crap, however, that's probably giving them a little too much credit. God knows I can be a WS-ELB and post pointless crap about movies I don't like. So, in summary, I'm a hypocrite and have gone completely off-topic and can't even remember what movie I really wanted to see. A Very Large Arrangement or something, I dunno.