Betrothed, Bothered and Bewildered

The Evening Standard (London, England), January 20, 2005 | Go to article overview

Betrothed, Bothered and Bewildered


Byline: DEREK MALCOLM

A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT

Cert 15, 135 mins ****

AVERY Long Engagement is a pretty long film. But Jean-Pierre Jeunet would confound expectations whatever subject he essayed, so this movie doesn't weary its watchers.

It reminds us that before the whimsical Amelie, his greatest success, Jeunet made the much blacker Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children.

This is a story about war and what it does not only to its victims but those they left behind.

Based on Sebastian Japrisot's novel, the film starts in 1920 when farmers' crops have begun to replace the trenches.

But if the conflict has ended, it has only just begun for the limping Mathilde (Audrey Tautou, thankfully no Amelie here).

Her fiance, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) has been missing for more than three years. She has been told he died, but she doesn't believe it, and gradually she discovers what happened.

Manech was court-martialled for self-mutilation (a common experience during the war) and sentenced to death with four others. They were not executed but sent over the top into noman's land between the French and the Germans, and thus to almost certain death. But nobody saw Manech die.

The film follows Mathilde's investigation step by step, slowly unravelling the lies that conceal the truth. It's essentially a love story but since the lovers are seldom seen together except in flashback, it's the war itself that takes centre stage.

The terrible nature of that conflict and the suffering in the trenches has never been better portrayed, not even by Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front.

It is not a pretty sight and you may have to turn away at times.

But Jeunet refuses simply a realistic study, giving his tale a fantastical edge that doesn't undermine the murderous effects of the war but does underline the almost noble determination of Mathilde.

Even the sudden appearance of Jodie Foster, alongside European actors Dominique Pinon, Chantal Neuwirth and Jean-Pierre Darroussin, does not jar.

What we get is a film that takes hold of a certain terrible period in time, shakes it afresh and makes you think about it again.

A love story? Perhaps. But what I will remember is the appalling nature of trench warfare, and the cold-heartedness of those who conducted it.

Those horrors overshadow Mathilde's unconquerable spirit. If that's a failure of the film, its success in other respects mitigates strongly.

Jeunet is a highly audacious director who must be accepted warts and all.

A Very Long Engagement is a considerable film.

Beauty that fails to move

TRILOGY: THE WEEPING MEADOW

Cert PG, 162 mins ***

YOU won't see a more beautiful film than Theo Angelopoulos's first part of an intended trilogy about Greek history and the trials and tribulations of Hellenism.

It is often positively staggering.

But it is also staggeringly long, sometimes obscure and almost wilfully unable to bring its central characters to life.

The story unfolds between 1919 and 1949, following the fate of a woman refugee from Odessa taken in by a Greek family and married to her adoptive brother.

When her husband leaves for America to become a musician, she is left behind with two sons.

Thrown into jail as a Leftist during the uprising of 1936, she is released a decade later to find that both sons have died fighting on opposite sides of the civil war after the end of the Second World War.

The film is structured like a Greek tragedy and its sense of history is palpable. But its characters seem merely symbols rather than flesh and blood.

The visual poetry on the screen, added to by the music of Eleni Karaindrou, astonishes. But you have to be moved by more than beauty if the film is not to seem fatally static. …

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