Cinema Signal:

A Widow for One Year
by John Irving

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. "A Very Long Engagement" (aka, "Un long dimanche de fiancailles")
[Due to the unpredictable ways in which browsers display accents and diacritical marks, they have been removed]

At 134 minutes, this is a very long engagement, indeed. By turning a woman's devoted quest for a lover thought dead on a battlefield of World War I into a saga, what is predictable almost from the get-go renders it into something akin to a shaggy dog story. But the Tautou performance, the magnitude of the production and the emotional content involved is likely to get you over that. Its theme of loyalty to a dream is done as a very impressive spectacle.

After the collaboration between Audrey Tautou and directeur Jean-Pierre Jeunet on the beloved film, "Amelie," the pair return for this later work that is not only better funded but which may be a high point in production value for any film to emerge out of France, ever. It is certainly the prettiest.

Based on the novel by Sebastien Japrisot and begging for big screen adaptation, it's the story of Mathilde (Tautou), an indomitable provincial girl whose childhood sweetheart and fiance Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) goes to war and finds himself in a trench on the perifery of a no-man's land in the Somme. The trench is nicknamed, Bingo Crepuscule, and is the site of considerable discontent. As many as five of its soldiers shoot themselves in the hand in order to win themselves relocation at the least and discharge as a possibility. In America we call it malingering, but the response to it is condemnation universally.

In the French army, it appears, they dealt with it in their own way, which is to run the malingerers out into the field between them and the enemy's trenches with certain death assumed. But the masking of cruelty may not always have a predicatable outcome. In any event, the malingerers find different destinies on that battleground, with Manech getting hit by enemy fire.

He's assumed dead by everyone except Mathilde, and therein lies the tale. Feeling her lover's spirit still alive, she becomes tracker and investigator as she runs down every lead, every rumor and every survivor of Bingo Crepuscule in order to learn the actual fate of her man without relying on rumor or assumptions. Only an actual witnessing of him or his dead remains will take her off the trail of interviewing his trench-mates, reading letters, responding to chance meetings and a great deal of lucky happenstance.

Though her good uncle Sylvain (Dominique Pinon) and aunt Benedicte (Chantal Neuwirth) with whom she lives in Brittany give her hopes small encouragement, they remain steadfast in providing their heartbroken charge loving guardianship and shelter. They see their limited funds nearly depleted by Mathilde's trips to Paris (with a rather smashing wardrobe), other destinations, and her hiring of intrepid private detective Germain Pire (Ticky Holgado) to help her expand the investigation.

The film has the feeling and detail of a novel, with a richly colorful cast whose sheer numbers defy listing here (did I mention Jodie Foster?). The epic of mystery-unravelling, which at times is Rashomon-like in its variations of witness accounts, is folded into a piece of film art that is visually stunning, from first to final frame. Jeunet certainly demonstrates what he can do with a large budget and most especially with the cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel and art direction of Aline Bonetto. Technically, it's a seamless piece of work with no compromise evident, in the rare stratosphere of "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow", "Brazil" and other photographic masterpieces. Jeunet has put himself in the company of a no lesser visual genius than Terry Gilliam.

Of course, there's no diminishing the beauty and personality that leads us along the adventurous quest. What this makes apparent is that major distributors are finding her appeal impossible to ignore. After over 20 films in France, American film goers have been the happy witnesses to 3, ("Amelie", "God is Great...and I'm Not" on DVD, the gripping "Dirty Pretty Things" and, now, this one) with, undoubtedly, more to come. Her destiny for worldwide recognition is growing and applause for this portrayal won't die down so quickly. When it does, we can look forward to seeing her in "The Russian Dolls" in 2005."

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  




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Audrey Tautou
Mathilda, a woman with purpose
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