The first thing I noticed at this screening was that it was two-thirds full at 5.30 pm on a Wednesday afternoon – for a film that had already been on release for several weeks. Then I found myself sitting next to a couple of women who must have been in their 80s. In fact, most of the audience for this film about young lovers appeared to be over 40. Both these observations were unusual and very encouraging.
Around this time I also read a short item in Sight & Sound, reporting on the phenomenon of films for older audiences which confounded industry expectations by doing much better in midweek than at weekends when the industry usually looks closely at box office performance. Vera Drake provided a particularly striking example of a film that found its audience in midweek. Other reports this year about the general fall-off in audiences across cinema markets in the developed world have begun to cite the failure of the industry to attract older audiences as a factor in this failure to sustain the film exhibition business.
When the film started, I worried that it might be far too violent for my older neighbours, But there was no noticeable reaction and the suggestion that they might be offended was more a reflection on my assumptions. The violence was necessary to represent the desperation that men felt at being trapped in the trenches in the First World War — being willing to blow off their own fingers or toes rather than remain a front line soldier.
The theme of A Very Long Engagement does seem likely to attract both younger and older audiences with its combination of historical romance and surrealist comedy and its revelations about a war which continues to fascinate contemporary young people for whom there is no direct connection through living relatives. It is also interesting that for Anglo-American audiences, the film explores France at war — an under-represented theme for Hollywood films (see also Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, due for re-release in the UK in November 2005)).
But is it any good? Would it be worth using with students? My first thought is that this is a big screen film and even with video projection would feel diminished in a classroom setting. However, I must accept that for many audiences films are generally seen on small screens and therefore this may not be such a drawback. It is also subtitled, but I think there is enough visual invention to persuade reluctant students to overcome their aversion to subtitles — which I think is not as prevalent as is sometimes suggested.
As a ‘spectacle’, the film is never less than impressive and is a worthy successor to Jeunet’s previous film, Amélie and also to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — the two previous subtitled champions that no doubt Warner Bros hoped to emulate with this release. The whole issue of ‘film as spectacle’, with its budget implications, is useful for studying cinema as ‘institution’. French cinema has tried to develop both the genres (think the heritage film, fantasy and science fiction and the action thriller) and the financial basis for such production — with the latter being more problematic. Luc Besson is perhaps the only French producer who has consistently worked with (relatively) high budgets. A Very Long Engagement cost $55 million (according to IMDB) — on a par with the average for a Hollywood main feature — and represents a co-production between Warner Bros and various French production companies, including regional funds. Unfortunately, the production deals led to an unfortunate battle over the ‘nationality’ of the film for awards purposes that eventually damaged its marketing campaign. It was thought to be an ‘American’ film in France and in America was not allowed as eligible for the foreign language film Oscar awards.
In aesthetic terms, the film is very stylised with a painterly golden glow for the rural home by the sea where Mathilde waits for Manech and a bleak nightmare landscape for the front line. The money has gone on aerial shots that emphasise the emotional sweep of the couple’s memories of each other and CGI to enance the visualisation of wartime France. Jeunet’s conception of his fictional world requires actors and performances to match the extravagance of the imagery. This means a heavy burden for Audrey Tautou as Mathilde. The way Jeunet has used his star in both Amelie and A Very Long Engagement will not be to everyone’s taste. Personally, I can take her performance in both films, but it is a strain and I think I prefer her in Dirty Pretty Things and He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, both of which make use of her range of talents. The huge success of Amélie has made it difficult to imagine her outside the role of a quirky and determined fantasist. There is an enjoyable cameo by Jodie Foster contained within A Very Long Engagement and both her star presence, and the ways in which Jeunet has filmed many of the sequences, reminded me of the excitement of Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. I suspect that those with a deeper knowledge of French cinema will find that A Very Long Engagement uses generic elements from many other French films and explores representations in interesting ways. One colleague has suggested that a comparison between the film and the original novel by Sebastien Japrisot would be interesting, especially in terms of the character of Mathilde and how the filmic representation has been developed in relation to both Audrey Tautou’s star persona and the audience’s expectations of a romantic heroine in this kind of film spectacle.
Roy Stafford, April 2005
seen at Dukes Cinema, Lancaster