A Terrible Beauty
In Miracle on 34th Street as Natalie Wood is trying to decide
about Santa Claus, her mother tells her that "faith is believing
in something when common sense tells you not to." In Jean-Pierre
Jeunet's brilliant new film, A Very Long Engagement,
Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) is a case in point. A polio victim since childhood,
she maintains faith that she will one day be reunited with her fiancé
Manech, a conscript in World War I, who is reported to be dead. Based
on the 1991 novel by Sébastien Japrisot , the film is a dreamlike
exploration of two sides of human nature: the darkness that leads to
the horror of war, and the lightness that embodies the power of love.
There are multiple subplots and a plethora of characters that make the
film difficult to keep up with, but Mathilde's unrelenting mission to
discover the truth keeps us focused.
The film opens in the style of Jeunet's Amelie as a soft-voiced
narrator (Florence Thomassin) introduces the main characters. Manech
(Gaspard Ulliel), a baby-faced nineteen year old, is one of five soldiers
for wounding themselves to escape the front lines. Along with Manech,
who is in a state of shock, are Bastoche (Jérôme Kircher),
Six-Sous (Denis Lavant), Ange Bassignano (Dominique Bettenfeld) and
Benoît Notre-Dame (Clovis Cornillac). The sadistic punishment
for the five men is not execution but being dropped off in a no-man's
land without weapons or protection, where their chances of survival
are very slim.
Four years after the war, Mathilde refuses to believe that Manech is
dead in spite of various eyewitness accounts of his being hit by machine
gun fire. Her search for her childhood sweetheart forms the main storyline
and the mystery unfolds slowly like pieces of a puzzle being fit together.
With the support of her Aunt Bénédicte (Chantal
Neuwith) and Uncle Sylvain (Dominique Pinon) who raised
her after her parents were killed in a bus accident at age three, Mathilde
hires a private detective Germain Pire (Ticky Holgado) to investigate.
She undertakes her own search as well, compiling photographs, news stories,
interviews with survivors who may be possible leads, and visits to Paris
and Bingo Crépuscule, the trench where the soldiers were sentenced
to death. Audrey Tautou is convincing in her role and we root for her
to find her man, though we know the odds are stacked against it.
Her search leads her to discover for herself the barbarity of war and
the courage of the individual soldier, fighting tenaciously for survival
in the trenches. The film does not spare our sensibilities in graphically
showing war scenes as unsettling as the opening scenes of Saving
Private Ryan. Jeunet is a master of cinematic tricks,
and there is plenty here to keep us dazzled: flashbacks, fast edits,
colorful imagery, and tones that alternate between sepia, salmon, and
blue, but the film is not about cinematic showmanship. It is about a
relationship that is deeper than physical and one person's fierce determination
to go beyond reasonableness and alter what is accepted as reality. A
Very Long Engagement will not be eligible for nomination as the
year's best foreign-language film because one third of it is American
produced. I would suggest instead a nomination for best picture. It
is that good.
In Undertow , the
third film by David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real
Girls), two young brothers, Tim (Devon Allen) and Chris (Jamie
Bell), flee the violence of their rural home in Georgia. Co-produced
by Terrence Malick, Undertow
has aspects of a conventional thriller but it bears Green's unmistakable
languid, dreamy style, though many are comparing it to Terrence Malick's
Badlands and Charles Laughton's classic Night
of the Hunter. Using an abundance of yellow, brown, and red tones,
cinematographer Tim Orr effectively captures the atmosphere of the poor
South with its abandoned spaces, junkyards, urban rot, and backwoods
pig farms. Green has a feel for the way people talk and the dialogue
achieves a rare naturalism, but this is not a film in the neo-realist
tradition. It's lyrical tone puts it in more in the land of Huck Finn
and Robinson Crusoe, territory reserved for myth and poetry.
Using freeze frames, slow motion, color manipulation, and transitional
fades, the opening sequence captures Chris's escape from his girl friend's
menacing father after he accidentally breaks a window trying to alert
her of his presence. Impaling his foot on a board and nail, he stumbles
home with his foot bleeding severely and later uses the board to make
an airplane to give to his 10-year
old brother, Tim. In a subplot that makes us aware of the eccentricity
of the characters, Tim has some strange stomach problems, and eats paint
and dirt to induce vomiting, a condition, according to the director
who suffered the same malady, called pica brought on by malnourishment.
The early pace is leisurely but things heat up when Uncle Deel (Josh
Lucas) shows up. Recently out of prison, he harbors resentments against
his brother (Dermot Mulroney) for marrying his sweetheart and taking
part of his inheritance of Mexican gold coins. Oddly, his brother invites
him to stay at the farm, but we can tell that he's there for more than
hominy grits and southern fried chicken.
Resentment soon turns to violence, and the boys, threatened by the
wounded uncle, escape on foot seeking out food and shelter wherever
it is available. On the run, they undertake a nightmarish journey
through forests and swamps, on freight cars and foot, spending time
with people living on the margins: a friendly black couple and some
runaway girls who Chris is drawn to out of loneliness and fear. As Uncle
Deel closes in, the film becomes less about the chase and more about
the characters and the relationship between the brothers. Jamie Bell,
the English actor who played Billy Eliot, turns in a magnificent
performance as Chris, and Josh Lucas is convincing as the deranged uncle.
Utilizing a haunting score by Philip Glass, Undertow gradually
builds its low-key tension to a power that becomes riveting. In spite
of some repetitive chase scenes and a few superfluous camera tricks,
it is Green's best film and deserves more than a limited release.
.©2005 Howard Schumann