War Won’t Tear Us Apart

A Very Long Engagement

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement rubbed me the wrong way early, and I never gave myself over to it. I probably spent as much time looking at the DVD-player clock as I did watching the damned movie. (It was, indeed, a very long engagement.)

Although I quickly dismissed it, I wasn’t being capricious, nor was I infected by the anti-Amélie zeal that seems to grip a great many right-thinking people. (I was apathetically ambivalent about Jeunet’s 2001 movie.) At least Amélie’s fey-ness was of-a-piece with its protagonist’s world. In A Very Long Engagement, Jeunet’s fervid need to turn everything into fussy, over-processed whimsy is wholly incongruous with its primary subject: war.

Not long ago, Jeunet might have been an ideal candidate for the topic. The director, in collaboration with Marc Caro and obviously in the thrall of Terry Gilliam, gave the world the twisted dark fantasy of Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children before being given the keys to Alien: Resurrection. What appeared to be a ghoulish visual sensibility would have been perfect for portraying armed combat, the most ghoulish of accepted human conduct.

But with Amélie and A Very Long Engagement, it’s evident that Jeunet has gone beyond soft, simultaneously superior in attitude — my movie is a work of art — and aggressively naïve. Does the filmmaker really believe this bullshit, that love and goodness and faith have the power to conquer all, even bullets and bombs? Or does he crassly calculate that hopeless romantics will fall for it?

In Engagement, Jeunet muse apparent Audrey Tautou plays Mathilde, a young woman whose fiancé Manech was sent to fight in World War I. Everyone has good reason to assume he’s dead.

But not Mathilde. She has an unshakable belief that he lives, even though when she poses challenges to the universe — say, that if the dog enters her room before she’s called for dinner, Manech is alive — the cosmos gives her mixed signals. The film is a story of detection, as Mathilde searches for clues about Manech’s true fate, and we all get fresh lessons about the horrors of war. More than anything, though, we get a validation of Mathilde and her ever-so-endearing brand of madness.

For at least half of its considerable running time, A Very Long Engagement is static and shapeless, with no emotional arc. The suspense of the narrative is established — about whether Manech lived, whether Mathilde will discover his fate, and how it will affect her — but then the narrative runs in circles, with dead ends and many fruitless inquiries.

The storytelling is so lazy that whenever a peripheral character is mentioned, a little image of that character appears on the screen, because Jeunet hasn’t done that hard work of establishing distinctive or memorable people.

The picture is lovingly framed and shot — even its muddy scenes of violence and death have a perfection to them — and the result is a baffling fairy-tale quality. The prettiness and artificiality of A Very Long Engagement by their nature undercut the very concepts of war and true love; things that are messy and chaotic are given a stifling sense of order.

There is certainly a place in the world for fantasy, particularly the type that helps us temporarily escape truly tragic realities. The indulgence of imagination is a coping technique, a way to avoid unpleasantness — for a while.

But Jeunet’s movie doesn’t run fabrication and reality in conflict with one another, with the victory of the real assured; the fantasy that the protagonist’s one true love improbably survived the war overtakes and devours the infinitely more plausible outcome that he died; a common, true, authentic experience of war is replaced by an extraordinary (and extraordinarily unlikely) one.

Yet even as the movie turned me off, I had hopes for how it might turn out. I pronounced a third the way through that certainly Manech had died, that Mathilde’s bubble of illusion would pop and she would be forced to face her grief.

But I overestimated Jeunet. Instead of finding some — any — genuine humanity in his movie, he opts for the happy ending that wars so often provide.

In fairness, he tempers the fantasy and ends A Very Long Engagement before it can become even more treacly. But the bittersweetness of the finale doesn’t change the fact that for two solid hours, the filmmaker is trying to convince the audience that some stupid little world war ain’t gonna keep our lovers apart.

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