Cinema is art, a pure imitation of life. It has the resonance of our collective belief system, the colour of everyday reality, the way we deconstruct information and the manner in which we react to it. Films, however, are increasingly becoming a business, the means to simple entertainment. I would like to believe that there is nothing wrong with this development since recreation is but a natural byproduct of any good art form. My thoughts bring us to "A Very Long Engagement," an epic romance set in France during WWI. This is the new film from Jean-Pierre Jeunet who also directed the Oscar-nominated "Amelie." Based on an internationally acclaimed novel by Sebastien Japrisot, "Engagement" has nuance and irreverence; heartfelt drama and whimsy; slapstick comedy and also harrowing violence all delivered without apology. I have to ask if these are but designs to have your cake and eat it. Appeal to everyone and antagonise no one? Is this art or commerce or both? Is it careful manipulation or the trademark bitter-sweet sensibility of one Jean-Pierre Jeunet?.
Audrey Tautou plays Mathilde, a young woman who was afflicted by polio as a child and carries the scars of her past into adulthood. She finds comfort and love in Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), her childhood friend; they are engaged to be married. But once the war breaks out Manech is off fighting for the ideals of his country and living a tortured existence. Some of the war sequences are just breathtaking. I learnt how soldiers resorted to self-mutilation in order to be disqualified from the infantry. They faced imminent capital punishment or - if lucky - a court martial and a return-ticket home. Somewhere in "A Very Long Engagement" is a terrific war epic that never comes to be. When news of Manech's death reaches Mathilde, she refuses to believe it because her heart says otherwise. Hence begins her relentless, desperate search for the truth as she investigates the lives (and death) of four soldiers who served with Manech. Now Andrey Tautou is a wonderful actress. It takes a certain level of genius to play a cripple who is believably determined and sexy. And Tautou pulls it off without groping for our sympathy. Her performance is quite frankly the best reason you should see the film.
"A Very Long Engagement" is borne out of Jeunet's good intentions to indulge us in his version of grandiose film-making. But he fails because his love story does. We empathise with Mathilde and Manech but do no root for them. Although their affections are explicated through a regular barrage of flashbacks, our interest in their wellbeing is rarely sustained. The film is exquisite in its cinematography and production values but it writhes and sputters with its story in the hope that we will stick around for the payoff. By its conclusion, we feel a little shortchanged. - Adnan Khan