A Very Long Engagement

Reading Neil Gaiman’s postings from this year’s Sundance Festival reminded me I haven’t blogged about movies for a while – shock, horror! Can’t have the Woolamaloo turning into a one-note show, can we? Alas, I was not at Sundance and not one of the lucky souls to see MirrorMask – I, and I suspect many thousands, are salivating at the thought of a Gaiman-scripted, Dave McKean-directed movie and the fact it is coming via Henson’s just makes it more exciting (and that’s a shameless hint for an invite if Neil and Dave are showing MirrorMask at the Edinburgh Film Fest this summer!).

Anything involving Neil and Dave is going to be good (loved their work together since Violent Cases and Signal to Noise – my chum Brendan once impressed Neil by turning up a signing I was hosting with a first edition of Violent Cases to be autographed – Neil spotted it right away) and I know Neil has been working on movie material for a long time as he talked about a project based on the excellent Death miniseries at an event way back when I was an eager young bookseller, full of hair (and full of something else no doubt), so I am very pleased to see a movie project coming to fruition for both of them and, needless to say, dying to experience it.

I have been off using my prize UGC pass, taking advantage of it and that traditional escape from troubles and woes, the flickering screen. Actually I have been a little disappointed at some recent flicks. I had high hopes for Oliver Stone’s Alexander, but it simply didn’t work for me. Too much to fit into a single movie, even a long one and I never had the feeling of Alexander as either man, god or myth. Which is not to say it is without its good point of course – it is an Oliver Stone film and he is a damned fine film-maker, but it just didn’t hold together. I recommend the Penguin classic on Alexander instead or my favourite TV historian Michael Wood’s splendid In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great (informative, insightful and accessible without ever dumbing down – and Michael always looks good in tight jeans for the ladies as he scrambles over part of Asia Minor).

Kar Wai Wong’s 2046 should have been the closing night movie at last summer’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. It was pulled at the last minute and we instead saw a Korean period piece re-interpreting Laclos’ Les Liasons Dangereuse (John Malkovich was excellent in the older film version) which was a surprise and a pleasant one at that. In the movie press since Wong has stated he was re-editing the film to a more understandable narrative but denied re-shooting. However, Mr Doyle, his cinematographer (one of the world’s most celebrated) was on hand to (somewhat drunkenly – not out of character apparently, but you can’t argue with his results) discuss the filming of Hero at the Film Fest. We heard later he had to go back to work on 2046 as well, so perhaps there was some re-shooting after all. However, months later it arrives and off we go to see it, all eager. Alas, it was also disappointing. The narrative is still confusing and the characters difficult to engage with. There are some remarkable visuals and beautiful moments but as with Alexander it simply didn’t gel together for me.

And so this week to Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement (Un Long Dimananches de Fiancailles), re-uniting Jeunet with his Amelie star, the incredibly gorgeous Audrey Tautou (oh those eyes!) and other Jeunet regulars such as Dominique Pinon. I’ve adored Jeunet’s wonderful weaving of fantasty, realism, humour, style, romance and astonishing characters and visuals since Delicatessen first entranced me years ago in the Edinburgh Filmhouse and taught us all the fun side of post-apocalyptic cannibalism. I think he is to French cinema what Terry Gilliam is to English language cinema. So you can imagine after being disappointed with recent eagerly anticipated movies I was silently praying for this to be good. It wasn’t good. It was marvellous.

If you don’t know the film concerns Mathilde (Tautou) , a lame (because of polio) but spirited girl on the French coast and her ardent belief against all the odds and evidence that her love, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel – quite excellent) did not die in the hell of No-Man’s Land. Moving between their childhood in the village, Mathilde’s quest to find out what happened after the war and events in the trenches the film teases, taking us in different directions, building both hope and fear of what has really happened as she pieces together the differing recollections of various people (including a German woman visiting the grave of her brother in France – a nice touch).

The scenes by Mathilde’s coastal village are shot in warm golds and reds – open fields with the wind blowing across the corn; waves crashing against the lighthouse, echoing the ripples the wind creates on the crops. The trenches are shot in an almost monochrome; everything is washed out, blue-tinted and cold; the horror, futility and grimness offset by little touches of comradeship and humanity (a soldier giving up his red mitten to protect Manech’s injured hand from the cold).

Jeunet’s trademark visual ingenuity and beautiful imagery are woven throughout the film – even the trench scenes have a certain grim beauty; the fact the scenes are so beautifully shot makes the horror of the trenches all the more potent. The true horror is shown not so much in the graphic imagery of the trenches however, but in the suffering of the people left behind; mothers, sweethearts, comrades guilty because they lived when friends didn’t.

This is a wonderful film. There aren’t many who can carry off such a mixture of suffering and horror and loss with spirit, romance and beauty. From the flickering, start-of-the-century-style camera work at the beginning to an ending which is by no means assured this is an incredibly gorgeous and moving film, the sort of story and imagery you can easily lose yourself in. Yes, I know I am gushing, but two days later and this film is still living behind my eyes.

End of advert for the Edinburgh Branch of the Jeunet Appreciation Society 🙂