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Overall Rating
4.15

Awesome58.54%
Worth A Look: 15.85%
Just Average: 8.54%
Pretty Crappy: 15.85%
Sucks: 1.22%

8 reviews, 34 user ratings


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Very Long Engagement, A
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by Peter Sobczynski

"What 'Cold Mountain' might have been like if it hadn't stunk."
5 stars

On the surface, “A Very Long Engagement” looks like the kind of treacle-filled cinematic bon-bon that is doomed to failure. After all, attempting to mix whimsy with a graphic depiction of the harsh realities of the world rarely work; the balance is usually off and either the sweetness overwhelms the grimness or vice-versa and you wind up with the borderline-offensive likes of “Life is Beautiful”. In addition, the film comes from French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, a filmmakers whose previous works –“Delicatessan”, “City of Lost Children”, “Alien Resurrection” and “Amelie”-have all been wonderful but, with the exception of the latter, they have lacked the kind of direct emotional storytelling required for a story along these lines. Adding those two elements of together would seem to be a sure-fire recipe for disaster but the resulting film, amazingly, is anything but. In fact, Jeunet has taken these unlikely elements and created one of the most stirring films around-an epic romantic odyssey that tells a beguiling fable without ever forgetting or ignoring the horrors lurking just beneath the surface.

As he did in “Amelie”, Jeunet spends much of the first reel of the film introducing an enormous number of characters while setting up the basic premise of the film. In the trenches of Bingo Crepuscule during the waning days of World War I, we are shown five soldiers who have been court-martialed for giving themselves self-inflicted wounds-we get their histories and the real reasons behind their injuries. For their acts, they are to be tossed over the side of the trench into the no-mans-land between the French and German armies where they will inevitably perish. Their fellow soldiers think they are getting a raw deal and do everything they can to make them comfortable but eventually, the time comes when they have to carry out their orders. A couple of days later, a battle breaks out and all five are presumed dead.

After the war ends, everyone attempts to put their lives together and go back to the way things were. However, one woman, Mathilde (Audrey Tautou, the gamine who became an international sensation in “Amelie”) refuses to forget what happened at Bingo Crepuscule. Her childhood sweetheart and fiancée, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), was one of the five condemned soldiers and she somehow senses that he did not perish after all-if he were truly dead, she feels, she would know it for sure. She decides to investigate, both on her own and with the aid of a private detective (Ticky Holgado), to discover what really happened that day in the trenches.

As a result of her sleuthing, she begins to realize that there was more to what happened at Bingo Crepuscule than what she was initially told. Even when everyone around her insists that she simply face the fact that her love is dead, she presses on by interviewing others-fellow soldiers and their friends and loved ones-whose fragmented memories, when pieced together, begin to reveal a clearer picture of Manech’s fate. Eventually, her investigation turns up evidence of a cover-up and it appears as if someone is attempting to bring both her and her investigation to a sudden and decisive halt. At the same time, another woman (Marion Cotillard) seems to be carrying out a parallel investigation of the events at Bingo Crepuscule; she, on the other hand, is apparently intent on murdering those involved with what happened.

In theory, “A Very Long Engagement”, based on the acclaimed novel by French author Sebastien Japrisot, has a narrative structure similar to “Amelie”; both, after all, feature an adorable young woman who affects the lives of countless people while searching for a love that she is not even sure actually exists. However, while “Amelie” was all sweetness and light, the tone here is far darker and more realistic. Instead of minimizing the impact of the war scenes so as not to put fans of the earlier film off, Jeunet goes in the other direction and he has captured some of the most frightening and harrowing visions of the madness of war ever captured on film. A great director, I believe it was Truffaut, once said that it was impossible to make a truly anti-war film because even the most pacifistic viewer would find themselves growing excited by the kinetic energy of the battle scenes. Jeunet’s work here forcefully demonstrates the inaccuracy of that remark; the war sequences are staged with the detail and precision of “Saving Private Ryan” but the only emotions that anyone will come away with are sorrow and horror.

As impressive as those scenes are, Jeunet creates just as many emotional fireworks in the scenes in which Mathilde doggedly pursues her case. Even though we can sort of surmise how this story will turn out in the end, the screenplay by Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant is so efficient in the way that it distills the complex book (largely told in the form of letters, an approach that is hardly conducive to an adaptation) into a narrative that is easy to follow without being dumbed-down that even the most cynical of viewers may find themselves surprised at how completely than have been swept up in it and how much genuine impact the final scenes have. Things aren’t all gloom and doom, however-there are some bits of Jeunet’s off-center sense of humor, such as the sight of a bartender who has devised an intriguing use for his wooden hand and a running gag involving a mailman who enjoys messing up the gravel driveway of Mathilde’s uncle (Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon) by skidding his bike.

A good portion of the success of “A Very Long Engagement” also rests on the slim shoulders of Audrey Tautou. As Amelie, she was a winsome delight-even those who hated the film fell under her spell-but the character of Mathilde is a darker and sadder one; if she tried to be Amelie again, the character, not to mention the film, simply wouldn’t work. Luckily, her performance here is extraordinary in the way that she is able to suggest the character’s optimism without ever looking like a simp or a fool. It is a great piece of acting in a deceptively tricky role; the result is one of the best performances of the year and confirms her position as a major actress. She is ably supported by an enormous cast of actors who all create memorable portrayals in even the smallest roles-one of the best is a brief cameo from a French-speaking Jodie Foster, who plays a war widow with her own heartbreaking story to tell.

Moving effortlessly from humor to horror to heartbreak and visually stunning to boot, (his recreation of the period is just as seamless and convincing as the future worlds he has created in the past), “A Very Long Engagement” is a powerful example of the kind of epic storytelling that went out of style when filmmakers decided that stunts and special effects were easier to create than compelling stories and characters. Based on the worldwide success of “Amelie”, Jean-Pierre Jeunet could have coasted for years by making variations on that film. Instead, he chose to try something far more ambitious and on every level-as a romance, as an anti-war drama, as a mystery and as a star vehicle for his muse-he succeeds wildly and the result is one of the most unforgettable films of the year.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=11186&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/17/04 07:38:15
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User Comments

6/11/15 Paul This review is telling an artist what his art should be. Arrogant! And I love Kubrick! 5 stars
11/03/09 MP Bartley Lyrical and harrowing, if just a tad too dense and overdone. 4 stars
7/11/09 Jared Kreiner Jeunet's' best 5 stars
9/30/08 Annie G Beautifully filmed, but ultimately sadder than expected. 3 stars
6/18/08 gemma & kirstie a brilliant film that we cant seem to get enough of!!!!! definatly a 5 star!!!! 5 stars
6/05/08 PAUL SHORTT PRETTY LONG AND UNENGAGING 1 stars
3/01/08 Alisha Amazing, amazing, amazing. 5 stars
8/18/07 aliza its interesting 4 stars
3/12/06 Roderick Cromar Really great. Everything a film should be. Only tiny flaws. 5 stars
12/19/05 Nicole Good movie, but its hard to care about Mathilde's search...love story not devl early enough 4 stars
10/31/05 Christina OUrsler Very french, very existential....tuba, polio,war and love...mostly love. 5 stars
10/28/05 TPS worth it for the battlefield scenes alone but the rest is pretty good also 4 stars
10/27/05 Rosie everything you need in one film! 5 stars
9/23/05 Phil M. Aficionado Complicated and beautiful story full of vivid characters; slightly contrived in places, tho 4 stars
8/22/05 Taylor Fladgate Fantastic. Complicated plot, I had to watch it twice to catch the nuances. 5 stars
8/12/05 foxy familiar story line but Tautou makes it enjoyable 4 stars
8/03/05 Mark Albert The feel of Amelie, but deliciously dark and different! 5 stars
7/17/05 JFK great movie. Jean Pierre rules!!!! 5 stars
6/13/05 Helen Bradley Audrey Tautou disappointing, plot poor editing bad 2 stars
4/20/05 Dan Excellent cinematography and a compelling story 5 stars
2/24/05 ronnie surprising , deligthful movie 5 stars
2/16/05 John Cinematography masterpiece....... 5 stars
2/04/05 Veronica Serwin Absolutely phenomenal. 5 stars
1/15/05 jcjs fabulous, delightful surprize, great show 5 stars
1/12/05 nick2k wow...good stuff. nice to see jean-pierre attempt wwi. loved it! 5 stars
1/06/05 Green Gremlin Another masterful achievement from Jeunet. 5 stars
12/31/04 paul fantastic, beautiful 5 stars
12/28/04 T. Maj Does justice to a wonderful book 5 stars
12/27/04 John Bale Possibly the best antiwar film since Paths of Glory. Brilliant ! 5 stars
12/26/04 ajay I had a hard time with the French names/subtitles. I loved Amelie, so I'll see this again 4 stars
12/03/04 Luc Confirms a new way of making movies 5 stars
11/27/04 Eva masterful film making! 5 stars
11/25/04 Dianne A truly beautiful film with moments that will haunt/touch me forever. 5 stars
11/22/04 Vince One of the very best movies of the year. A must see. 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  26-Nov-2004 (R)
  DVD: 12-Jul-2005

UK
  N/A

Australia
  26-Dec-2004




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