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18 February 2006

A Very Long Engagement (2004)

Audrey Tautou (Mathilde), Gaspard Ulliel (Manech), Dominique Pinon (Sylvain), Jodie Foster (Elodie)

Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie)

Language: French

From Hollywood Video: "Set in France near the end of World War I, this drama tells the story of a young woman who embarks on a relentless search for her fiancé, who is believed to have been court-martialed under mysterious circumstances."

Based on one of my favorite novels, by Frenchman Sébastiaen Japrisot, A Very Long Engagement must have been a nightmare to adapt to the big screen. Five men are court-martialed and sent to their deaths in the no-man's land between the French and German trenches. They all die... or did they? Mathilde, a stubborn woman who is hampered by legs long since damaged by polio, is convinced that her fiancé, Manech, is still alive. She begins to gather clues about his final moments, and each of those five condemned men has loved ones who must be interviewed. Each of those interviews leads to other clues. The cast list in the novel, plus their numerous code names and aliases, made my use of a notebook an essential part of the reading experience.

While several of the secondary soldiers' trails of clues (and the people who provided those clues) were cut for brevity's sake, I found this film remarkably faithful to the original novel. The tone, more than the individual details of who said what, came across almost exactly as I imagined. It was serious and downright disturbing throughout many of the most detailed battle scenes, the nightmarish realities of which were far more than I could pictured myself, but there were moments of playfulness that lived within Mathilde's imagination.

For example, the narrator (an unidentified female voice that could be interpreted as an older version of Mathilde, because of the intimate inner workings she reveals) indicates that Mathilde has sexual fantasies while alone in bed. However, she does not imagine intense scenes of pornographic sexuality. The movie cuts briefly to a portrayal of what she imagines - a black-and-white silent movie showing a woman being kissed passionately on the neck. The fancy of that scene, in that her sexual fantasies were images from contemporary films, made her character seem even more likeable and innocently childlike.

Tautou played Mathilde as an unlikely cross between serious intent, unflappable dedication, and... whimsy. Like a child, she played head games: "If I make it to the bend before the car, Manech will come back alive," she thought as she ran, on her braced legs, through the fields and toward the road. With the stoicism of a pure heart and absolute faith, Mathilde pursues the cold, heart-breaking trail despite all advice to the contrary. Her determination practically wills the dead to life.

Other characters were very entertaining and distinctive, each reflecting the sort of capricious individuality that was a hallmark of Japrisot's characterizations. Jodie Foster played the role of a lover to one of the condemned men. She has only one present-time scene, in French, with the rest portrayed in flashback while narrating a letter to Mathilde. I cannot guess as to the accuracy of her French or her accent, but she sounded fantastic to me, and the deep lines around her mouth spoke of an age and experience that she can legitimately bring to her roles now. Her character was supposed to be Polish, having lived in Paris for several years, so maybe that made her accent more acceptable to French audiences!

Overall, this was one of the most faithful novel adaptations I have ever seen, which is particularly nice considering how much I loved the book. However, as with the John Cusack adaptation of High Fidelity, the movie was so close to the written original that I gained little, substantially, from the experience of seeing my imagination on film. For the most part, I am pleased that they did not ruin or diminish a story that now, because of this film, can be enjoyed by a slightly wider audience. It is a subtitled film, after all, so we cannot hope for too much.

Blogger Mircalla said...

This film required a great deal of attention for an audience unacquainted with the book, because of the convoluted story, crammed with French names, hints and twists.

“head games: "If I make it to the bend before the car, Manech will come back alive”

The same head games Amelie played in the homonymous film! I couldn't stop thinking of those (more and less obvious) equivalences with Amelie's character throughout the film. Both characters were endowed with a very active imagination, and both were confronted with the deciphering of some clues. Her power of invention and detective quality seem to be the leitmotif of Audrey Tautou’s parts (see the sinister disclosures in Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and the shifts in viewpoints in Love me Love me not (2002)) culminating with the role of a symbol’s deciphering expert in the blockbuster film, The Da Vinci Code (2006).

Having said that, the time frame was, of course, completely different.

The director's distinctive mark was there in all its enthralment: the atrocities of the war were represented with a strong hyper-realistic visual impact and were counerbalanced by the fable-like scenes of Mathilde's farm and by her at times entertaining at times dramatic quest for the truth.

Blogger carrie_lofty said...

I cannot imagine trying to keep up with this film without having read the book first. It would have been a more challenging movie. But I have not seen any other Tautou roles, not even Amelie, so I was able to take her interpretation of Mathilde as something more unique.

Blogger Mircalla said...

I highly recommend Amelie, which is in my top 5 of favourite films!

Audrey Tautou's acting style and allure has been compared to Audrey Hepburn's. It is certainly an hazardous match, but there are some common aspects.

Blogger carrie_lofty said...

I would say the comparison stems from how self-possessed they both are, meaning that they remain within themselves and do not bend easily to the opinions or judgements of others. Or, at least, they play characters that exist on screen with that manner of confidence.

Blogger Pacze Moj said...

Haven't read the book, so can't the join the discussion 'bout that; but I liked Engagement's portrayal of France during World War I -- all the surface stuff was nicely stylized, but the filmmakers really nailed the collective, national state-of-mind of the French non-soldiers. Instead of going for physical authenticity, the film tried to get across the more important, invisible stuff.

However, my mind was wandering a bit during the film. It's probably due to -- like you've both said -- a plot that's hard to follow for someone who hasn't read the book. Still, I didn't find the actual story very... engaging.


Blogger carrie_lofty said...

And seeing as how it's about the only WWI drama I can think of, the war scenes seemed particularly striking because of their unfamiliarity. Grim stuff.


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