Jean-Pierre Jeunet represents that select group of filmmakers who treat special effects as their own art. They don’t put in explosions and amazing visions just for the sake of bringing in audiences. There’s actual wonder to them and in the case of Jeunet’s “A Very Long Engagement”, those special effects are there and you may not even know it. However, Jeunet’s greatest special effect which reaches deep into the human heart is the story of Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) and Manech (Gaspar Ulliel), an inseparable pair who grew up together and are torn apart by the ravages of WWI France. He’s been drafted and as we learn at the beginning, is one of five men condemned to die due to self-mutilation, some having done so as an effort to try to get out of the war, Manech included.
The battlefields are dark, awash in a sad gray, explosions bursting up all around these hapless men, struggling to survive. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel continues his association with Jeunet from “Amelie” and in turn Jeunet’s style, which is part fairy tale, part real feelings about events going on around the characters. War is never pretty, no matter how much patriotism and love pushes troops on through the fight. Manech, in fact, isn’t the only focus. Through remnants of his fellow condemned soldiers, a trail followed dedicatedly by Mathilde in the hopes that he may still be alive, we learn plenty about these men, enough to know what war can do to those forced right into it. There’s a somber and sad moment when Mathilde and a familial entourage go into a field of flowers that once was the trenches of WWI. Fields forget what happened, but not men.
Making the story even more incredible is that Mathilde was stricken with polio at a young age and now walks with a limping gait. No matter what little strength she has, she’s determined to find Manech, despite evidence that claims he’s dead. To cover the areas she can’t get around to quickly, she hires Germain Pire (Ticky Holgado), a private detective who prides himself on his other name, Peerless Pry. Perhaps he’s a character that’s almost like Jeunet? Certainly Germain takes great pleasure in his work, eager to poke around those corners that hide uncovered clues. He writes to and calls Mathilde with great zeal, uncovering his latest finds. Meanwhile, Mathilde’s very patient Aunt Benedicte (Chantal Neuwirth) and Uncle Sylvain (Dominique Pinon), who have taken care of her since a very young age, do their best to remain supportive. It’s not a matter of frustration among them, but they feel that if he was reported dead, then he’s dead. Even so, they go along her path as well, figuring out everything that comes Mathilde’s way.
In these countless searches for Manech, Jeunet’s talents still shine. He’s a man of light, who loves playing with the possibilities of what he sees. Golden light floods throughout the frame, as only Jeunet could make it happen. Stories of Mathilde’s upbringing and bouts with polio, along with her current day living are just as amusing as “Amelie” was. And within all that’s gathered here, true beauty that’s never overdone. Jeunet feels badly about what war does to men. There’s lots of irony in his opening sequence, beginning with a broken Jesus figure hanging from a cross. Jesus made his sacrifice apparently, feeling it best to relieve people of their sins. But whose sins are soldiers relieving? Do they really belong here so much as to die for what amounts to mass confusion, flying dirt, and whizzing bullets and bombs? At times, Jeunet tones down his colors considerably. There’s no happiness in the middle of war. But in all the time that Audrey Tautou is featured in her role, he allows only the best for her. She’s just as important to the cinematography as the camera is to anything. There’s no telling how Ron Howard will treat her in “The Da Vinci Code”. Quite frankly, I worry about another “Around the World in 80 Days” treatment, which plagued Cecil de France. Then again, Howard is high above the work of Frank Coraci. But Jeunet knows what makes Tautou sparkle. It’s her thin, determined figure that never fails her, nor that grin which is far different than anything we have here in young actress form. Therefore, “A Very Long Engagement” continues a collaboration which should keep on going. What new role can be had for Tautou in another Jeunet partnership is yet to be determined, but no doubt he’ll be able to find something.
Surprisingly, “A Very Long Engagement” has been released as a 2-disc DVD set. But considering the treatment bestowed upon “Million Dollar Baby” as well, it doesn’t seem like such a stretch for Warner Bros. to treat their high-class pictures this way. Before we begin with everything about this set, “A Very Long Engagement” is a French film and nobody should be led to believe otherwise. There was a slight uproar come awards time last year with arguments over whether the film should be considered French or American, based on its funding. Money’s all well and good when it comes to making movies, but this was filmed in France. A 100% French cast is what it had (Jodie Foster may be from L.A., but for her fluent French, she was most certainly a part of what was created here). It was filmed in France. It had a French director. How can it be more complicated than that? So a few million bucks were pulled from Warner Bros. France to make this happen. Point is that the money came from Warner Bros. France, not Warner Bros. U.S.A. It’s as French as Montmartre.
Now then, Warner Bros. has done it again with this release. Somehow, some way, no matter what the film was, the corporation manages to cobble together extra features that are either of their own undertaking, or taken from other sources who know how to make extra features. 20th Century Fox is doing well enough with its line of “Studio Classics” DVDs and those 2-disc sets of such films as “Man on Fire” and even the upcoming “The Fly” and “The Fly II”. But just try to beat what’s here (it’s on the same scale as Paramount’s “Lemony Snicket” set which came out earlier this year). Uniquely enough, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s audio commentary on disc one is accompanied by English subtitles as he speaks French throughout the entire track. Jeunet proves himself to be hopelessly in love with the movies, perhaps even more than some of the daily reviewers that look at movies. He points out where he was inspired by Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone, Steven Spielberg, and David Lean, especially from “Ryan’s Daughter”. Amusingly, Jeunet can’t quite place why the shot of a raised hand decked out in a red glove, amidst drained color, reminds him of Spielberg. No doubt he’ll either find out sometime or already has. Jeunet is also a good speaker in that he’s not one of what we have in this country.
In our mainstream audio commentaries, figures from all over Hollywood speak about their latest films, pausing every couple of seconds to constantly compliment whoever it was that shined their shoes and left them outside of their trailer at their request. Give these people enough time and they’ll fawn over the chef who made their low-carb egg-white omelette for them. There are some things in Hollywood which will never be understood, especially the need to cover yourself as you’re talking during an audio commentary. One theory is that it’s about possibly having to work with the same people again and being nice to them on a DVD is one way to keep the relationship going. Jeunet shows us Americans what swines we are in that regard and instead of doing what we do, he points out those who did well in his film, who he enjoyed working with and simply says that those people will have great careers in movies. That’s it. No drooling over them unnecessarily. Simple language made even simpler because it’s short. Jeunet also talks a bit about digital calibration, which is crucial to making his movies what they are. And fortunately, Jeunet doesn’t skimp on a good story of how Jodie Foster ended up in this. Plus, for all the bragging he does about the “Making-of”, he’s right!
Disc two is where the rest of everything is and there’s a 72-minute documentary entitled “A Year at the Front: Behind the Scenes of A Very Long Engagement”. No interviews, no observations, no recalling memories. There’s just footage of whatever happened as it was happening. Costume and hair design are well-covered, as is many parts of the filming, as Jeunet is involved in each and every part of the process. He misses nothing, and nothing is too small for him to leave out. Name any part of making a movie and it’s here, right down to an editing bus that Jeunet climbs aboard during lunchtime and sits down with his editor to look at the latest footage and cut it together right then and there. It’s full-on honesty for those who want to see how a movie is made and to look at filming and know what’s different between what’s shot and what’s edited. The documentary is smart enough to allow us to have a look at the final scenes after they’re done in order to make the comparison complete. This is also a Valhalla for aspiring filmmakers.
It doesn’t end there either. “Parisian Scenes” chronicles the painstaking process in making 1920s Paris come to life in 21st century Paris, especially through one scene which is done by having costumed extras walk along an empty landing strip while period cars zoom by. There’s some blue-screen around, with the cityscape to be added later. Jeunet, his costume designer, and production designer talk about the challenges in making it work and the research that had to be done with lots of books cross-referenced. “Before the Explosion” looks at the special effects required for the zeppelin explosion towards the end of the movie, which took not only a lot of time and effort, but also a lot of layers being brought down together to make it all seamless. Watching it being filmed is rare and may other movie DVDs take lessons from what’s here in terms of on-set footage. There’s also 11 minutes worth of deleted scenes with commentary by Jean-Pierre Jeunet who claims at the outset that he doesn’t like cutting scenes after they’ve been filmed. To him, it’s better to cut scenes on paper since it doesn’t cost anything. “A Very Long Engagement” was a 2 hour, 14 minute film. Jeunet mentions that the original cut was 2 hours, 30 minutes. I hate it when some directors on commentaries for an 88 minute film claim the first cut to be 3 hours long. What a waste. Learn from this man too. Sometimes you need what’s just enough to get you by. For most of you all reading this, you’re not in Hollywood. Make sure it sticks that way when you film.
Be sure to check out this set as soon as possible. We movie buffs are being rightfully spoiled by a company that knows how valuable the stuff in our wallets really is.