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After the war epic genre had been through its renaissance a few years back, headed by audience favourite Saving Private Ryan, many expected a bit of a downturn in the wartime drama output from Hollywood. And they were right, with the bayonets and machine guns being replaced by swords and arrows on the back of the Lord Of The Rings’ success. But that didn’t stop the French joining the fray. Self-taught director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, fresh from the surprise international hit Amelie, decided to adapt a novel by Sebastien Japrisot and tell a war story very different from the usual heroics churned out by the mainstream. Thus, A Very Long Engagement was born.

Very Long Engagement, A (Special Edition)
Movie
Jeunet recreates World War I France for the graphic but infinitely appealing drama, entitled Un long dimanche de fiançailles in its native tongue. The film tells the story of young lovers Mathilde (Jeunet favourite Audrey Tatou) and Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), who are torn apart when Manech goes to fight the Germans in the infamous battle on the Somme. The horror of it all take its toll, as five soldiers are court martialled for self-mutilation in a vain attempt at being sent home. Manech is one of them.

The fate of the five men, all from different backgrounds and carrying their own story of hope, love, humour and utter stupidity, is decided by the back-room strategists who have become the unlikely villains in many a wartime drama. Instead of gaining a pardon, the soldiers are marched right over the trench to fend for themselves in “no-man’s land”. No one gives them a chance at survival, and it seems no one really knows what happened to them once they were tossed over the side to die.

Mathilde, carrying a pronounced limp as a result of polio as a youngster, still holds out hope that her Manech is still alive. Call it love or just blind optimism, she sets out on a quest to find out what happened to her beloved fiancé and the other four soldiers who were victims of the sheer brutality of war. Along the way she meets a range of interesting characters, all of whom try their best to piece together the events which left Manech stranded between the trenches of a battlefield. She enlists the help of, among others, a private investigator, a whore (played the brilliant Marion Cotillard) and the wife of one of the soldiers, portrayed by none other than Jodie Foster.

Jeunet manages to structure the tale in such a way that neither the horrific images of war nor the love story itself dominates over the other. We learn about the soldiers mostly in flashback, while the evidence Mathilde gathers is revealed to us without any trickery whatsoever. As she assembles the pieces of the story we see how different points of view can change the perspective of one particular incident, so none of the characters ever lie, they just tell it how they saw it.

What really works with this film is the sheer innocence of Mathilde and her blind faith in true love. Her quirky way of determining whether Manech is still alive (“if I reach the bend before the car, Manech will come back alive!”) is but one of the little touches Jeunet has injected into the film to give the story a certain character not usually seen in either war films or straight out love stories. Couple that with superb attention to detail, lavish scenery and set design that is second to none and you’ve got yourself a sure fire winner.

Very Long Engagement, A (Special Edition)
Less attentive audiences may be lost at some stage during the film, whether it be due to the subtitles, which mainstream audiences still shy away from, or the complicated storyline that introduces a range of characters very quickly and keeps them coming at a steady rate. But when everything is revealed in the touching final act there won’t be a viewer who doesn’t want to stick around.

Amelie may have been a much more publicized hit, but A Very Long Engagement is arguably a more polished film overall. It’s a shame Jeunet’s work on this one went largely unnoticed in many pockets of the world, but it comes as no surprise with audiences still feeling a little jaded by a spate of lackluster war films from a few years ago. There is a hell of a lot to like about this one, so do yourself a favour and seek it out. Don’t be scared if it’s in the foreign film section, because this one is a beauty.

Video
The film is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, and looks stunning to say the least. Jeunet has given the film a sepia-toned wash, which may have helped the visuals look so vibrant on this disc but there is no doubt the transfer is one of the better efforts from Warner of late. Sharpness is incredible, with no aliasing or imperfections on the print to be seen. Colours look their best, although the palette is dominated by the greens and browns during the war scenes and the yellow wash over the rest of the film.

Audio
What makes this Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack so great is most definitely the score. The original music by the highly experienced Angelo Badalamenti is brilliant, and thankfully the soundtrack does it justice by surrounding us in the score. Dialogue is always clear and precise, while the war sequences are naturally handled creatively in terms of surround usage and the like. The subwoofer kicks in at various stages, the highlight of which occurs during the zeppelin explosion about the half-way mark. A DTS soundtrack would have been welcome for this release, but the 5.1 mix we receive here is still top notch.

Very Long Engagement, A (Special Edition)
Extras
The film comes packaged in a two-disc special edition, meaning we are treated to a number of extra features to add some real value to the release. First up is the commentary track on disc one from director Jean Pierre Jeunet. It’s not often that you have to listen to an audio commentary while still looking at the screen, so this subtitled track is a little different in that regard. For the most part Jeunet is interesting to listen to (or read, I suppose), giving us a wealth of information early on about the cast and their background. He moves on to outline the difficulties faced with various scenes, the techniques they used to shoot various aspects of the film and Audrey’s relationship with the cats and dogs during production. Overall this is an interesting commentary, but the fact you have to read the subtitles may turn a few away (not that it should, mind you).

On the second disc we are treated to a number of making of pieces, the first of which is really the jewel in the crown of the whole package. Entitled A Year At The Front, the lengthy documentary covers the production exceptionally well, much like That Moment on the Magnolia disc. Jeunet repeatedly refers to the making of in the footage, so it seems those in charge had the foresight to employ a videographer to chronicle the shoot from day one. The end result is a great piece which might not have a set structure but gives us a great idea of how the movie was shot and the way film crews work in general. This is what making of documentaries should be like, so the piece on this disc is easily one of the best going around. Fans will enjoy this one no end.

Even though the main documentary covers so much of the production there is still room for various smaller featurettes to pick up all that is left over. The first piece is a look at the zeppelin explosion, one of the showcase sequences in the film. We see the whole process from start to finish, from the location scout to the animatics to the final product. In between there is footage of Jeunet entertaining the crew with his sound effects as they look over the animation for the sequence. A really interesting part of the featurette is a look at how they built the miniature models and exploded them, which rounds out this valuable extra.

Very Long Engagement, A (Special Edition)
Still going strong, the Parisian Scenes featurette covers how the look and feel of Paris was created. We are treated to interviews with the director and set designers, who explain their motivations behind the costumes and set dressings. There is also lengthy coverage of the use of blue screens to insert the characters into a Parisian setting. Another interesting piece.

The deleted scenes package contains fourteen deleted or extended scenes, all accompanied by an optional commentary from Jeunet. He explains early on that he prefers cutting scenes during the storyboarding process, which is why you’ll find a lot of these inclusions are just different or extended versions of the same scene. Nevertheless, some of the scenes here are well worth a look.

Rounding out the extras collection is the international trailer, which comes up incredibly well and would have definitely enticed my into the theatre had I not known about the film already. The teaser trailer is also included, one that steers clear of using any dialogue to promote the film.

In all it’s a great little extras package which might look a little light on at first glance but has some real value thanks to the great making of pieces on disc two. They really add value to the set, so considering the relatively inexpensive price you get a lot of value for your hard earned.

Very Long Engagement, A (Special Edition)
Overall
This is another winner from one of France’s most accomplished directors. Audrey Tatou leads the way in a film which probably doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Those who make an effort to seek this one out will be rewarded handsomely with a film that combines the brutality of war and the power of true love like never before. The video and audio are top notch, and the two disc set contains some great extras for fans of the film. There is no hesitation in recommending this set be added to any film buff’s collection.


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