December 17, 2004

A Very Long Engagement

Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet Starring Audrey Tautou and Gaspard Ulliel

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Amélie has cast a hypnotic spell on many viewers and swept them head over heels into a worldwide whirl appropriate to the film’s whimsical l’amour-fou theme. It has also drawn considerable ire from a minority of cynics. Some of them have branded it as xenophobic (most notably French critic Serge Kaganski in an infamous Libération op-ed rant), while others have parodied it with cinematic rebuttals like He Loves Me … He Loves Me Not and Love Me If You Dare. Inevitably, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and starlet Audrey Tautou have re-teamed to capitalize on the success of Amélie and silence its critics with A Very Long Engagement.

Based on a Sebastien Japrisot novel, the story concerns two childhood sweethearts separated by World War I. Court-martialed for finagling an early discharge through self-mutilation, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) is presumably dead to all but Mathilde (Tautou). A bum leg does not deter her from putting on a brave smile and doing some playfully gamine-like investigative work on proof of life for her missing fiancé. Through extensive flashbacks recalled by quirky eccentrics surrounded in art-nouveau decors, Mathilde unearths some secrets about corrupt officers, scornful widows and mistaken identities.

The film intermittently showcases some epic battlefield sequences that are uncharacteristically bleak, signalling Jeunet’s desire to be taken seriously. Otherwise, it’s business as usual for the director. He doesn’t miss an opportunity to use his staple zoom close-ups, spinning pans, baroque mise en scène and bronze-tinned panoramic compositions. But he hasn’t truly put his bag of tricks to good use since ending the fruitful partnership with Marc Caro, his co-director of the nightmarish fables Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children. Jeunet’s usual gimmicks seem more tedious than amusing here.

Tautou and Ulliel don’t really have a chance to act, as the director overindulges in ultra wide-angle reactionary shots in which they bulge their eyes and grin on cue. The film also underutilizes its all-star supporting cast, glossing over colourful performances by Jodie Foster and Tchéky Karyo in essentially glorified cameo roles.

Although Jeunet is once again treading the familiar theme of le fabuleux destin, soliciting emotional response has never been his forté. While compulsively tinkering with the film’s visual details, he fumbles its story. In the end, the uncomfortable dissonance between Japrisot’s sweeping wartime romance and Jeunet’s gâteau-décoratif style only seems to validate those who were critical of Amélie.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.