Un long dimanche de fiancailles

Directed by Jean Pierre Jeunet. France. 2005.

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I was recently reading about the early days of sound cinema, as background for a Piece I intend to write about a 1930s French film. The Jazz Singer was released in 1927, and the first sound studios in France opened in 1929. In the post-war years the Avant-garde had sought to make commercial Cinema an art form, equal to Theatre and Literature, but with its own unique aesthetics. For some film-makers the arrival of synchronized sound was a natural progression, but many were stopped in their tracks, not only did they have to incorporate this new artistic aspect to make their work commercially viable, they also had to cope with the limitations caused by the accompanying technology: films lost much of their movement. Having dialogue meant a need for more story material and some film-makers looked to literature and plays for this. But there was an on-going debate as to whether the end-result could be regarded as cinematic. I had these thoughts in mind as I considered “A Very Long Engagement”. It is based on the novel by Sebastien Japrisot.

The story advances through the inter-weaving of past events with those of the present in 1920, as Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) investigates the whereabouts of fiancé Manesh (Gaspard Ulliel) who was condemned, along with four others, for self-mutilation in the Somme trenches of the First World War. A notification of death had been issued, but Mathilde had always felt that her Lover was still alive. Her quest begins when she is summoned to visit an ex-serviceman still in hospital, who was Escort to the five men, and who tells how he took them to a frontline trench where, on arrival, the Officer he reports to shouts that he should have let them escape on the way. The Officer, following orders, makes them go over the top and wait, in full view of enemy lines, for whatever their fate might be, hoping for a possible reprieve from President Poincare. The Escort, who has been haunted by this ever since, did not see the men die; there is, therefore, a faint possibility that Manesh survived. He hands Mathilde a small box of items left by the soldiers, which he was to return to their families. 

The futility and irrelevance of war are not considered; they are taken as given. Its aftermath is the ruined lives of the men who survived, and of the wives, or partners of the ones who didn't. War is presented as an on-going catastrophe made worse by bureaucracy, which the citizens have to accept and cope with. The other side is not so much an enemy, as a hazardous part of the environment; the enemy within can be just as devastating. 

What makes this bearable to watch is the woman trying to find her lost soldier. Her endearing innocence, her private superstitions and her unshakeable determination, see us through. But those who expect a European film to be on a small scale might be disappointed. The Director's intent to make us feel the bullets fly overhead, and the showers of earth that rain down after an explosion, is achieved. And the shadow of war, on wider society, is strongly felt. Images of Men traipsing through trenches deep in water, as others sit, staring, waiting, with no purpose and no apparent hope of change, are lightened by the softness of the lovers on the bed together before it all began, or years later, by the Postman in Brittany who must always deliver in style, so skids his bike to a halt spraying gravel over the lawn, to the objection of Mathilde's uncle who has to keep picking out the stones.

Changes were made to the original story, including some simplifications, but I assume that the film takes its intricate narrative structure from the novel. But films are much shorter than novels, and the Writers have chosen to include a great deal of material. The result is a film that, though often slow-paced, is densely packed, and not at all easy to follow. The clues to what is happening, however, are there. And the technique of shifting from present, to memories and events of the recent past, and of childhood is employed so fluently that past and present merge as one. In a dramatic story we usually expect our hero/heroine to meet obstacles, but Mathilde gets genuine support from the people around her. The toughest opposition she experiences from them is apathy. And she gets so much help from elsewhere: she asks for it, she gets it. People come to her or write in answer to her advertisements, with just the information she needs. But as a film, it all works.

Visually, they worked from historical photographs to reproduce authentic compositions, and chose a brown hue for the trenches and yellow/red to contrast Mathilde's home setting in Brittany. Camera-work is complex throughout, with crane shots, dolly shots, tracking shots, helicopter shots, and computer generated images, creating a powerful visual experience. This is enhanced by music which is solemn and never sentimental, or is up-lifting as Mathilde alone, whose leg is affected by polio, climbs the lighthouse stairs where she was first carried by Manesh when they were children. Jeunet knows the First World War very well; he claims to have read every book on it, as a teenager. But he was concerned that his “whimsy” might undermine the serious nature of the subject. He has, however, handled it in just the right way to make it palatable.

After writing the opening paragraph to this Piece I began to view some of the old Silent films I had been reading about. Obscure Master-pieces I was expecting to discover seemed dull and technically inept; the best films seemed to be ones that were already well known. A Very Long Engagement however, is far better than any description can make it seem. It is a work of art. 

Peter Tonks
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