Mark Steyn

Romantic quest

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In John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, Dr Greenslade explains his theory of successful thriller writing to Richard Hannay: ‘Let us take three things a long way apart,’ he says, ‘an old blind woman spinning in the Western Highlands, a barn in a Norwegian saeter, and a little curiosity shop in North London kept by a Jew with a dyed beard. Not much connection between the three? You invent a connection.’

Jean-Pierre Jeunet would find Dr Greenslade’s examples tame stuff. For his formula, he takes a tuba player with a flatulent dog, a vengeful Corsican prostitute with death-dealing eyeglasses, a hospital housed in a giant zeppelin hangar, a postman who bicycles through his customers’ kitchens, a barkeeper with an intricately hand-carved hand, a guy whose dying wish is to urinate standing up, a punning detective, and a couple of dozen other curiosities, and invents a connection.

The director struck gold with Audrey Tautou and the relentless gamine quirkiness of Amelie, and it would be foolish to expect him to eschew either his star or his style for his next venture. What’s new is the connective material: the first world war. The English title of his film — A Very Long Engagement — has a double meaning: the deferred nuptials of Mathilde (Mlle Tautou) and her missing fiancé Manech, and the ultimate long engagement between the eternally entrenched combatants of the Western Front, whose bloody ping-pong across a few hundred yards of mud ought to remind some of the hysterical old queens in today’s media what a real quagmire looks like.

So the trick is to make the Amelie approach — the accumulation of eccentric detail — work on the big canvas of history. We open in a gloomy Great War trench, though one endowed with the Jeunetesque moniker of Bingo-Crepuscule. Threading through the trench are a party of French soldiers — five condemned men, the others their guards, leading them to their execution. Each has blown off part of his hand and been sentenced to death for trying to use self-mutilation as an opt-out clause from the war. As they’re led past their comrades, Jeunet gives us their back-stories — farmer, carpenter, village pimp...The youngest is the fresh-faced ‘cornflower’ Manech, who’s gone to pieces since a friend went to pieces all over him courtesy of a German shell.

It’s not exactly a clean execution. The five men are ordered to be released into No-Man’s-Land, on which thin strip of blasted scrub it’s merely a matter of whether the German or French end of the crossfire hits them first. Manech does what he always does — carves the initials ‘MMM’ on to a tree — or, rather, the tree: there’s only one charred stump left in No-Man’s-Land. ‘MMM’ stands for ‘Manech aime Mathilde’, which reminded me of McDonald’s slogan in Quebec — ‘J’M’ — as in ‘J’aime’, but with the burger chain’s distinctive golden-arched M. Perhaps that’s where Jeunet got it from: his characters come, so to speak, branded, accessorised with tics and traits that can come in very useful in a global conflict where millions of young men die, but yours have calling cards that stick in the memory, and can be reprised years later as a kind of secret code. Thus, a German woman signals to Mathilde by smearing the ‘Specials Of The Day’ off the blackboard of a French brasserie and leaving only the initials: ‘MMM’ — encore!

Did Manech die out there in No-Man’s-Land? The French state says yes, his comrades say yes, but Mathilde doesn’t feel it in her heart, and so she sets off on a quest to find him. Though she’s a polio-stricken orphan who’s been raised by a cheery aunt and uncle, her quest is funded by a bequest, which enables her to hire a whimsical private eye, and to journey to the farthest corners of France to meet other whimsical types. She tracks down old soldiers, the lovers of old soldiers, the widows of the friends of old soldiers. Many of these characters are worth a movie of their own: Jodie Foster, speaking an accented French we’re told is due to her being Polish, does a marvellous turn as a woman enlisted in a sad scheme by her frazzled husband to wiggle free of the war, and en route Jeunet gives us one of the more convincing and best-angled sex scenes of recent years.

The close-ups in the big picture work well in Sebastien Japrisot’s original novel. Garlanded and garnished by Jeunet, and with a few lurid inventions for the murderous hooker, they might even work in a magical-realist kind of a novel. But in a movie it’s harder to stay focused — especially with a director who, given the choice between narrative energy and the memorable visual, goes with the latter every time. It’s a gorgeous film to watch: from Paris to village streets to farmyards to Corsican brothels, France has never looked lovelier, a mélange of perfectly co-ordinated browns and yellows that shine brighter than the splashiest Technicolor. It’s the story that winds up muted.

The plot is really an attempt to peer through the fog of war — someone tells a small lie, and someone makes an error, and someone is confused about a fact, and someone’s a little nutty anyway, and buried underneath the mound of inaccurate details an entire human life disappears. As in Amelie, Audrey Tautou is intense and dogged, though the story itself feels more shaggy-dogged, literally so thanks to the presence of the aforementioned flatulent pooch, whose emissions are always greeted by Mathilde’s aunt with the jingle ‘Doggie fart/Gladdens my heart’.

There’s the essence of Jeunet’s approach to movie romance: a memorable couplet rather than a memorable couple. Does anyone remember the guy in Amelie? No, you remember all the whimsy-whamsy, not the big romance. With this film, it’s beginning to look like a pattern. Though Mathilde’s on a great romantic mission, and there’s one shot of her and her lover asleep with his hand on her breast that’s adorable, Jeunet seems to be too much in love with his leading lady to let her connect with anyone else: it’s boy-meets-girl without any meeting. Still, some wonderful moments and terrific cameos. And, in fairness to Jeunet and Audrey Tautou, try to imagine Richard Curtis and his muse Hugh Grant doing the Boer War.