Take 2 sittings for ‘Long Engagement’ | AspenTimes.com

Take 2 sittings for ‘Long Engagement’

Stewart Oksenhorn
Audrey Tautou stars in the French World War I film "A Very Long Engagement," showing Sunday at Harris Hall as part of Aspen Filmfest's Academy Screenings.

Aspen Times columnist/ad rep Su Lum, while reading Sébastien Japrisot’s novel “A Very Long Engagement,” resorted to a flow chart to keep track of all the characters, their aliases, occupations and roles in the World War I tale of romance and the fog of war.Which doesn’t bode well for the film version of the story of a young woman who refuses to believe her fiance has perished in battle. For one thing, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s adaptation moves fast, far too fast for scribbling a cheat sheet in a darkened theater. The film flashes back and forth to postwar Paris and the French countryside, the trenches where the French fight the Germans, and the time, 10 years before the war, when the lovers Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) and Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) first met as children. Characters pop up as if out of the Whack-a-Mole game – was that a French lieutenant or a private investigator? – and almost everyone goes by at least two names. Strands that Mathilde follows, like the mysterious German boots and the Corsican soldier’s whore, float up, disappear, and it’s anybody’s guess if they’re worth jotting down.

Also, anyone who spends too much time looking down at scraps of paper is going to miss the sumptuous visual feast of “A Very Long Engagement.” Mathilde’s hunt for Manech is continually bathed in an optimistic yellow, as if the sun is shining on her quixotic effort. The trenches, where it seems always to be raining, are a dismal gray.Besides, Jeunet understands the muddle of a detective story he is presenting us with. So he helpfully provides us with a high-tech form of a flow chart: As the story gets denser and more indecipherable, characters – talking heads, as it were – begin popping up at the sides of the screen, whispering bits of significant dialogue and reminding us who they are.

Lurking underneath this morass is a fine love story. The polio-striken Mathilde, whose breast was lovingly cupped by a sleeping Manech after their first sexual bonding, simply won’t accept the common-sense version of what happened to her beloved – that he died on the brutal front lines of the Great War. Working from letters, a photo, the fuzzy recollections of survivors and her unwavering will, Mathilde tracks every lead to the end. The cinematography is glorious – until, like most everything in the film, it collapses under its own weight. Tautou is also a treat, if you can overlook the similarities between “A Very Long Engagement” and Tautou’s landmark “Amélie,” also directed by Jeunet. But any emotional impact the film might make gets lost as viewers spend their energy tallying up characters and scenarios.

There is hope, however: Watching the film for the second time on DVD, I was finally able to tell the difference between Bastoche and Biscuit. So it may be that, like “The Maltese Falcon,” “A Very Long Engagement” is not meant to be deciphered in one sitting.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com