Monday, December 20, 2004


Movie Review: A Very Long Engagement.

Before I begin the review, permit me a complaint.

For the longest time, the only "artsy" theaters in the Washington D.C. area were some crappy one-screen jobs in the Dupont Circle area, and the slightly-less-obsolete-but-still-outmoded Shirlington theaters in Northern Virginia. For the most part, Shirlington was the only one worth going to if you wanted to catch an independent or foreign film.

Earlier this year, the E Street Theaters opened up near the MCI Center. Brand new, stadium seating, all the bells and whistles. Finally, a nice place to see movies that are off the beaten path.

Anyways, my complaint? The E Street theater charges $9.25 to see a matinee. That is quite simply ridiculous. I guess the only benefit is that you don't have to see all those infernal commercials before the film, but still-- that much money for a movie on a Sunday afternoon is outrageous.

Moving on.

Now, as much as I love movies, I admit to being a bit anti-elitist in my tastes. A good movie is a good movie, but I don't think that just because it's "artsy" or "French" it's automatically a great film. In fact, I usually find many art films-- and most French films released in America-- pretentious, snobbish bores.

However, my favorite foreign film in recent years was 2001's Amelie, starring Audrey Tautou and directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Witty, inventive, romantic, and adorable, I really enjoyed the film. A pretty big surprise from the director of the awful Alien: Resurrection.

His latest film, also starring Tautou, is A Very Long Engagement. Again, I don't do plot summaries, so feel free to read Roger Ebert's review here to learn the fundamentals.

While the movie is French, and it's a romance-- often a recipe for terrifying Ugly Male American boredom-- it also happens to be an amazing war film, easily one of the finest made concerning the First World War. The scenes in the trenches take place in 1917, after the French Army's hemorrhaging at Verdun, during the period of mutiny that threatened to collapse the entire French line. Engagement vividly portrays the life in the trenches, and the desperation leading the men there to escape at any cost, including self-mutilation.

Set against this is the melancholy of Tautou's character, Mathilde. Mathilde refuses to give up hope that her fiance Manech is still alive. Like a French Nancy Drew, she hunts down those who served with Manech. Alas, Manech was condemned to death for cowardice, as he shot his own hand to escape the Front. Manech's sentence, along with four others sentenced to die, is to be cast out into the No Man's Land between the French and German trenches.

Everyone Mathilde meets in her search says Manech is dead, but no one can prove it. Little clues along the way keep her hope alive. Along the way, we meet the loved ones of the other four dead soldiers, and learn how the pain of war has effected them each in their own way.

A Very Long Engagement is romantic, but in a deeply tragic sense. There are a few moments of levity here and there, but no cathartic humor.

Yet, while the film could easily have become morose, Jeunet's direction is wonderfully sharp, aided by lush cinematography and a moody score by veteran composer (and David Lynch favorite) Angelo Badlamenti. And, whenever the film starts to get too down in the dumps, all it takes is for you to focus on plucky Mathilde's cherubic face and you start to smile once again.

Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot: Audrey Tautou is beautiful. I knew that before, and this film only confirms that. I can't believe I'm already willing to revise my Kate Beckinsale opinion from just yesterday, but really, Tautou is angelic. Even if she's French.

Okay, I've been raving a lot about the film, but it does have two major flaws that keep it from being perfect.

One, it's confusing. Perhaps it's just the French (it's in subtitles), or the prevalence of multiple characters in moustaches, but I had a hard time keeping track of who everyone was, especially as the "mystery" deepened. The movie could easily come with a flowchart, it takes that many twists and turns. After a while, I kinda gave up trying to keep track, and decided to just enjoy the ride, which seemed to work. If you can't do the same, your enjoyment may vary.

Two, A Very Long Engagement is A Very Long Movie. It's 134 minutes that feels nearly three hours. I don't know what I could cut out, but there were multiple times where I felt the movie simply had. . . to. . . start. . . moving. . . again. Bring you patience pills while seeing it (and understand that if you find yourself *not* liking it, you're gonna be there for a while not liking it).

So, to sum up, A Very Long Engagement is an outstanding war film, a charming romance, but only an okay mystery. Also, the beautiful Audrey Tautou will bear me many powerful children, even if she doesn't know that just yet.

If any of you ever see Mademoiselle Tautou, would you be kind enough and please let her know that for me?

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