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A Very Long Engagement (2004)

November 25th, 2008 · 2 Comments

On the 6th of January 1917, five condemned French soldiers are brought to a trench in Somme: a once cheerful carpenter, who accidentally shot himself scattering away rats; a welder so disillusioned by the war that he burns his hand in an attempt to win a discharge; a brave farmer (Clovis Cornillac) who wounds himself in shame after murdering a superior officer; a Corsican pimp whose self-inflicted wound fails to win him a reprieve from combat, and a young lighthouse keeper named Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) who cracks under the horror of trench warfare. Each are sentenced to be thrown over the front lines, to starve or be shot by the Germans.

Though three years have passed without word from Manech, Mathilde Donnay (Audrey Tautou) refuses to believe that her lover died at the trench. Mathilde is a limp orphan who lives with her uncle (Dominique Pinon) and aunt (Chantal Neuwirth) on the Brittany coast. A veteran who escorted the condemned soldiers to their deaths meets with Mathilde, but can’t say whether he saw Manech killed. Presented with a box containing personal effects belonging to each soldier, Mathilde uses the clues to begin her own investigation. Her first lead involves a Corsican prostitute named Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard) who may have news about the prisoners’ fates.

Hiring a diligent private detective (Ticky Holgado) to pick up the trail of the mysterious Tina Lombardi, Mathilde resorts to her own guile to steal government documents and fan out across France in search of those who may hold a piece of the puzzle in her mystery. These include the carpenter’s girlfriend (Julie Depardieu), the Mess Hall Marauder (Albert Dupontel) who served Manech his last meal, and a war widow named Elodie Gordes (Jodie Foster) who was engaged in an extramarital affair with one of the condemned. Unknown to Mathilde, the vengeful Tina Lombardi is conducting her own investigation, tracking down military officers implicit in her pimp’s execution and killing them.

Production history

Un Long Dimanche de Fiancailles was a 1991 novel by Sébastien Japrisot. The hybrid storybook romance, detective mystery and social commentary on the Great War had been awarded the Prix Interallia by French authors and journalists on its way to becoming an international bestseller. Among its fans was Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who had just co-directed his first feature, Delicatessen. Jeunet was fascinated by the era of World War I and intrigued with the possibilities of recreating 1920s Paris on a massive scale. Jeunet recalls, “When I was a teenager I read everything about the First World War, every book. I wasted a lot of holidays because they gave me nightmares, even today it’s very difficult to read some of that stuff.”

Warner Brothers was eager to work with Jeunet following his 2001 magical romantic comedy Amelie, which had become the highest grossing French language film in history. The studio purchased the screen rights to A Very Long Engagement, wooing the director away from French studio UGC, which had hoped to produce Jeunet’s next project. He again collaborated with his Amelie co-writer Guillaume Laurant on a screenplay. Laurant recalls, “First we worked together to agree on what had to be kept and what discarded and decide upon a structure. Then Jean-Pierre wrote a 30-page synopsis. On the basis of that, I wrote a first version of the script. After that, it was a constant to-and-fro between myself and Jean-Pierre until we came up with a final version. I really enjoyed working with Jean-Pierre because of his constant concern for simplicity and efficiency.”

Jeunet had a few requests from Warner Bros. He wanted to make A Very Long Engagement a French language picture, in France, with a French cast and crew. He also wanted final cut. Jeunet recalls, “At every point they said, ‘Yes, OK.’ I said, ‘When are the troubles going to start?’ And they never did. I had as much freedom as I had doing Amelie. One hundred percent.” Warner Brothers set up a company it called 2003 Productions, financing a third of the film’s $56.5 million USD budget, the second highest ever for a French language film at that time. A five and a half month shooting schedule commenced in August 2003 in Corsica, before moving to the Paris area, then to Brittany for the coastal scenes and the Poitiers area for the trench warfare sequences. Interiors were shot at Bry-sur-Marne Studios.

The troubles started when Jeunet finished A Very Long Engagement and submitted it to the French government for subsidies awarded to films made in France. This raised a furor by two unions of French film producers, who argued that the film wasn’t French because it had been financed by Warner Bros. Jeunet felt that the three major producers in France – Gaumont, UGC and Pathe – were wary of Hollywood intruding on their turf. “It’s quite simple. There are three supermarkets and a fourth opens; the other three are not too happy about it and do everything they can to block it. Warner Bros. wants to be a fourth supermarket but making French films. I defend those who make movies. We gave work to 600 technicians, 80 actors and 2,000 extras; we saved Duboi, which was in trouble; and we spent €35 million in France. We didn’t delocalize.”

Opening October 2004 in France, A Very Long Engagement was a hit, ultimately selling $63.5 million in tickets outside the U.S. Arriving in the States in November, the response was not as stellar. Critics who liked the film had a peculiar way of communicating it. Carina Chocano, the Los Angeles Times: “A resolutely odd, occasionally absurd movie, but it’s as charming and stylish as one could expect from this pair – if you like that sort of thing.” Ken Tucker, New York Magazine: “When this long movie is over, all you want to do is clap and weep and watch it all over again immediately.” Variety: “Told with a blend of visual mastery and emotional intimacy, ambitious venture sustains a special melding of romance and pragmatism that should engage discerning audiences.” Expanding to 219 screens, it managed only $6.5 million in the U.S.


For anybody suffering withdrawal over director Terry Gilliam’s seeming inability to finance a movie that lives up to the droll vision displayed in Time Bandits or Brazil, A Very Long Engagement is the magic show you’ve been waiting for. A plot summary really can’t do any more justice to Sébastien Japrisot’s richly intricate novel than it can to Jeunet’s immensely whimsical vision of it. This is a cinematic dessert tray, with French digital animation studio Duboi recreating 1920s Paris on an eye popping scale and rendering some 300 trick shots to make the treats even richer. But underneath the visual sheen are reminders of wartime loss, regret and futility that only a European filmmaker would hint at in an enterprise this lavish.

Because this story is so dependent on exposition – with lots of subtitles for non-French speakers to keep pace with – A Very Long Engagement is challenging. And unlike Amelie, it doesn’t rate as a gigglefest. As a visceral experience, it’s beyond peer. Jeunet and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel borrowed a warm color palette from the Little Italy sequences of The Godfather Part II and much of the film resembles less a movie than it does a painting. The digital effects add depth to this world, instead of overwhelming it. In terms of the cast, watching Audrey Tautou, Marion Cotillard and Jodie Foster (speaking impeccable French she studied at the Lycée Français prep school in L.A. as a teen) is a treat. Jeunet lets enough light into the cellar to keep the film from being overwhelming, creating one of the finest anti-war movies in recent memory.

Noel Megahey at DVD Times writes, “All of this fabulous spectacle however is at the cost of any real feeling or emotion, it being smothered under the next spectacular, beautifully lit scene. Even when Mathilde visits what she believes is the grave of her fiancé it should be a solemn private moment, but Jeunet can’t resist filling every inch of the full scope ratio of the screen with as many crosses as will fit. Visually impressive, yes – emotionally resonant, no.”

Chris Luedtke at Passport Cinema writes, “Basically, this is what we call in the business ‘some good stuff.’ A lot of directors nowadays could take some cues from Jeunet’s originality in his displays of characters and plot drive … Jeunet has no problem making you believe that her long lost love may be alive one minute and then dead the next. For those willing to pop this in, you’ll be pleasantly delighted with it. Don’t expect some overly sappy romance story but do be prepared for a character driven mystery that’ll keep you guessing.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Crooked officer · Dreams and visions · Interrogation · Military · Museums and galleries · Prostitute · Train

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 AR // Dec 2, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    I love this movie. The only thing I really dislike is that it is sometimes hard to follow, but if you pay attention it is fairly rewarding. Actually…one other thing that bummed me out was that Pinon was given so little to do in his role. It’s a shame to waste such a face.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Dec 2, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    Amanda: I think even viewers fluent in French would have trouble keeping up with A Very Long Engagement on first viewing. That’s one reason why I wrote about it. The film absolutely deserves another look. Much respect to Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Guillaume Laurant for distilling a novel so overloaded with exposition into a beautiful movie. Thanks for commenting!

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