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Warner Home Video presents
"I need something to hold on to."
DVD ReviewFew filmmakers display the intense technical virtuosity of Jean-Pierre Jeunet—his style made him a critical darling with his charming romantic comedy Amélie, and he uses many of the same arrows in his quiver for a very different sort of story here. A Very Long Engagement is principally a war film, and a detective story of sorts; at times, it feels as if Jeunet is so intent on cramming the square pegs of his style into the round holes of this story that it creates a discordance, a movie more about its cinematographic accomplishments than about its narrative or its characters; but it's certainly a magnificent-looking two hours, and it's a movie full of rich visual rewards.
Jeunet's leading lady from Amélie, Audrey Tautou, receives top billing again here—she plays Mathilde, whose beloved, Manech, has been conscripted into the French Army during the last years of the Great War. Manech is one of a quintet who unwisely thought that self-mutilation on the eve of battle would keep them from facing the Germans from the trenches; instead, he and his four colleagues have damaged hands and missing fingers, to go along with the courts martial and death sentences. We're asked to pay especially careful attention to the first sequence of the movie, in which information about these five comes at us with machine-gun-like speed—in fact, the next two hours are devoted to unpacking all the strands of information, as we try and puzzle out just what happened that day at the front, and what the fates of these men, yoked together by war and improbable circumstance, held in store.
Mathilde, just 20, maintains the fervent belief that Manech is still alive, though all evidence seems to point to a contrary conclusion. The urgency of their young love is the catalyst of the film, and it's an instance of the intricate and labyrinthine structure possibly working against the picture's own emotional ends—that is, we see so very little of Mathilde and Manech together, before he is sent to the front, that the great motivator, the power and purity of this first love, is something that's only reported to us, something we're asked to take on faith. As she was in Amélie, Tautou is just adorable, though it's clear now that she and her director know it, and there's a studied quality to the cuteness—though she gets the lion's share of screen time, too, she's not given a tremendous amount to do, other than ask questions and look hopeful.
Mathilde has polio, as well, which has left her with a limp; she's not above using her physical condition for cheap sympathy in the aid of getting what she wants, though, and it's actually rather endearing to see her as an opportunist, rather than a self-pitying victim. Mathilde's journey leads her to hire a rather daffy private detective, and creates the opportunity for Jeunet to shoot all sorts of delightful little set pieces, playing around with film stocks and speeds, overlapping anecdotes one into another, creating a Rubik's cube of a movie for Mathilde and us to solve. His signature whimsy is very much on display, but he hasn't flinched from the brutality of battle; the scenes in the trenches, for instance, seem quite overtly to evoke one of the greatest war movies, Paths of Glory. The whole story is peppered with eccentrics and characters; for American audiences, the most notable of these may be the wife of one of Manech's comrades, a mother of five played by Jodie Foster.
Jeunet's visuals are particularly magnificent in their re-creations of early 20th-century Paris—Atget comes to mind, if not Toulouse-Lautrec, and there's a sensitivity to architecture that generally isn't characteristic of filmmaking. The film drives toward its necessary conclusion, and even though emotionally for much of the time we're on the outside looking in, there's much about this that's both beautiful and deeply affecting. The whole story may not stay with you, but some of the images are sure to linger, and even though we know we're being played, it's very, very difficult not to be won over by the cute little knowing smile that animates Tautou's face.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: As is appropriate for a film made with this kind of cinematographic care, the transfer is a very strong one—a subtle palette, very little grain and pristine image quality show off the technical aspects of the movie very well indeed.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: Atmospheric and lush, though the movie is more candy for the eyes than the ears, especially if you're not a Francophone.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 39 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
14 Deleted Scenes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Packaging: Gladiator style 2-pack
Disc Two also includes a package (11m:03s) of 14 deleted scenes, most of which are just small snippets cut from scenes that appear in the feature; Jeunet provides a commentary track on these little details and detours, some of which are lovely, but none of which are sorely missed. Back on the first disc, Jeunet also provides a feature-length commentary track, in French, with accompanying English-language subtitles, and if you want to preserve the illusion, he says, don't listen, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: "We are going to destroy all the poetry, all the romanticism." He expounds on the technical aspects of the filmmaking, and discusses his meetings with and casting of almost all of the actors; he's also candid about talking about influences on him, and rattles off the names of many French World War I novels, along with pointing out his homages to many directors, including Tarkovsky, Coppola, Leone and Spielberg. The only thing marring this track are the occasional typographical errors in the subtitles—Jeunet's discussion about one character's amnesia becomes about how he "looses his memory," for instance. C'est la guerre.
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsThe story doesn't always rise to the high level of technical craftsmanship of the storytelling, but Jean-Pierre Jeunet's signature style make this a movie that's beautiful to watch, even when it's more compelling to the eyes than to the heart. The ample extras will only enhance your respect for the cinematographic accomplishments here.
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