A Very Long EngagementHD [EXCLUSIVE]
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A Very Long EngagementHD
The movie is seen largely through the eyes of Mathilde (Audrey Tautou), an orphan with a polio limp, who senses in her soul that her man is not dead. He is Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), son of a lighthouse tender, a boy so open-faced and fresh he is known to all as Cornflower. After the war, Mathilde comes upon a letter that seems to hint that not all five died on the battlefield, and she begins the long task of tracking down eyewitnesses and survivors to find the Manech she is sure is still alive and needs her help.
This story is told in a film so visually delightful that only the horrors of war keep it from floating up on clouds of joy. Having not connected with his earlier films "Delicatessen" and "The City of Lost Children," I was enchanted, as everyone was, by Jeunet's first film with Audrey Tautou, "Amelie." Now he brings everything together -- his joyously poetic style, the lovable Tautou, a good story worth the telling -- into a film that is a series of pleasures stumbling over one another in their haste to delight us. I will have to go back again to those early films; maybe I am learning the language.
That is not to say "A Very Long Engagement" is mindless jollity. From Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves and from a hundred films like "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Paths of Glory" and "King and Country," we have an idea of the trench warfare that makes WWI seem like the worst kind of hell politicians and generals ever devised for their men. To be assigned to the front was essentially a sentence of death, but not quick death, more often death after a long season of cold, hunger, illness, shell-shock and the sheer horror of what you had to look at and think about. Jeunet depicts this reality as well as I have ever seen it shown on the screen, beginning with his opening shot of a severed arm hanging, Christ-like, from a shattered cross.
Sébastien Japrisot, French author and screenwriter, was the anagrammatic pseudonym of Jean-Baptiste Rossi, a writer from Marseille. His work is very well known in France, and A Very Long Engagement was a huge hit when it was published there over a decade ago. I, of course, had to find this out via Google as I hail from the Midwest and had never heard of him before I picked up this book. But what a treat I found: an intricately woven mystery-cum-historical-novel full of period flavor and examination of war and its aftereffects.
SATURDAY EVENINGOnce upon a time, there were five French soldiers who had gone off to war, because that's the way of the world.The first soldier, who in his youth had been a cheerful, adventurous lad, wore around his neck an identification tag marked 2124, the number assigned to him at a recruiting office in the department of Seine. On his feet were boots taken from a dead German, boots that sank into the mud of trench after trench as he plodded through the godforsaken maze leading to the front lines.All five of the soldiers were bound for the front. They went single file, laboring at each step, their arms tied behind their backs. The German army boots made loud sucking noises as men with guns led the prisoners from trench to trench, toward the dying light of the cold evening sky glimmering faintly beyond the dead horse and the lost cases of supplies and everything else that lay buried beneath the snow.There was a great deal of snow. It was early January, and the year was 1917.Number 2124 staggered along the narrow trenches, hauling himself through the mud, helped now and then by one of the guards, who would shift his gun to the other shoulder without a word and grab the prisoner's coat sleeve, tugging at the stiff cloth, helping him wrench one leg after the other from the mud.And then the faces.Dozens and dozens of faces, all lined up along the same side of the cramped passageways, and the eyes in these muddy faces watched as the five exhausted soldiers made their way ever closer to the front, straining forward, their bodies bent almost double with the effort. Beneath the helmets, in the evening light filtering through the mutilated trees, along the sinister earthen walls, mud-ringing eyes stared silently for a moment, all down the line, at the five passing soldiers whose arms were bound with rope.Number 2124--nicknamed the Eskimo, also known as Bastoche--had been a carpenter, in the good old days. He dressed boards, he planed them, and in between kitchen cabinets he wet 0 his whistle at Little Louis's bar on the rue Amelot in Paris. Each morning he wrapped a long strip of flannel about his waist, for support. Around and around and around. His window opened onto slate roofs and flights of pigeons. There was a woman with black hair in his room, in his bed, who said...What did she say?Watch out for the wire.They advanced, bareheaded, toward the front-line trenches, these five French soldiers who had gone off to war, their arms tied with rope as sodden and stiff as their overcoats, and every once in a while, as they passed by, a voice was heard, a different one each time, a toneless, impassive voice telling them to watch out for the wire.He was a carpenter, court-martialed for self-mutilation because they'd found powder burns on his wounded left hand. They'd condemned him to death for something he hadn't done. He's been trying to pull a white hair from his head. The gun, which wasn't even his, had gone off all by itself, because for a long time now, from the sea in the north to the mountains in the east, these man-made labyrinths had been the playground of the devil. He never did manage to pull out the white hair.In 1915, he's been awarded some money and mentioned in dispatches for taking a few prisoners. Three. In the Champagne region. The first one had raised his empty hands overhead, he had a lock of blond hair falling over one eye, he was twenty years old and spoke French. He said...What did he say?Watch out for the wire.The other two had stayed with a dying comrade just breathing his last, his belly ripped open by who knows what. Flashes of artillery fire, flashes of sunlight, flashes. Beneath a half-burned cart, crawling along on their elbows, still wearing their gray forage caps edged with red, a sunny day, a good day to surrender. Where was that? Somewhere or other, at the tail end of the summer of '15. One time he'd gotten off a train in a village and there'd been a dog barking on the platform, barking at the soldiers.Number 2124 was hale, robust, with the strong shoulders of an active man who'd gaily set off in his youth for adventure in America. The shoulders of a logger, a carter, a prospector, shoulders so broad they made the rest of him seem smaller. He was now thirty-seven years old, almost to the day. He believed everything they'd told him to justify his madness, all those reasons lying shrouded in the snow. He'd taken the boots from an enemy soldier who no longer needed them, he'd taken them to wear on those cold nights on sentry duty, to replace his old shoes stuffed with straw or newspaper. They'd tried him in a schoolhouse, convicted him of self-mutilation, and he'd been in trouble once before, unfortunately, because he'd been drinking and had done something stupid with a few pals, but that business about the mutilation, it wasn't true. He'd received a commendation, he'd been doing his best like everyone else, he simply couldn't figure out what was happening to him anymore. Since he was the oldest, he was the first prisoner in line, slogging through the flooded trenches, his broad shoulders bent forward, watched by those mud-ringed eyes.The second man's number was 4077, issued at a different recruiting office in the department of the Seine. He still wore the tag bearing his number beneath his shirt, but everything else, all badges and insignia, even the pockets of his jacket and overcoat, had been torn off, as they had been from his companions' clothing. He had slipped while entering the trenches and been soaked through, chilled to the bone, but perhaps this was a blessing in disguise, for the cold had numbed the pain in his left arm, pain that had kept him from sleeping for several days. The cold had also dulled his mind, which had grown sluggish with fear; he could not even imagine what their destination might be, and longed only for an end to his bad dream.Before the nightmare he'd been a corporal, because they'd needed one and the fellows in his platoon had chosen him, but he hated military ranks. He was certain that one day all men, including welders, would be free and equal among themselves. He was a welder in Bagneux, near Paris, with a wife, two daughters, and marvelous phrases in his head, phrases learned by heart, that spoke of the workingman throughout the world, that said...For more than thirty years he'd known perfectly well what they said, and his father, who'd so often told him about the Paris Commune, had know this, too.It was in their blood. His father had had it from his father, and had passed it on to his son, who had always known that the poor manufacture the engines of their own destruction, but it's the rich who sell them. He'd tried to talk about this in the billets, in the barns, in the village cafés, when the proprietress lights the kerosene lamps and the policeman pleads with you to go home, you're all good folks, so let's be reasonable now, it's time to go home. He wasn't a good speaker, he didn't explain things well. And they lived in such destitution, these poor people, and the light in their eyes was so dimmed by alcohol, the boon companion of poverty, that he'd felt even more helpless to reach them.A few days before Christmas, as he was going up the line, he'd heard a rumor about what some soldiers had done. So he'd loaded his gun and shot himself in the left hand, quickly, without looking, without giving himself time to think about it, simply to be with them. In that classroom where they'd sentenced him, there had been twenty-eight men who'd all done the same thing. He was glad, yes, glad and almost proud that there had been twenty-eight of them. Even if he would never live to see it, since the sun was setting for the last time, he knew that a day would come when the French, the Germans, the Russians--"and even the clergy"--would refuse to fight, ever again, for anything. Well, that's what he believed. He had those very pale blue eyes flecked with tiny red dots that welders sometimes have.The third man was from the Dordogne and his number was 1818. When they'd assigned it to him, he'd nodded slowly while a strange feeling had come over him, because he'd been a ward of the Child Warfare Bureau, and in every center to which he'd been sent as a boy, his cubbyhole in the refectory or dormitory had always been number 18. Ever since he had learned how to walk, he had done so with a heavy step, now made even heavier by the mud of the war. Everything about him was heavy and patient and obstinate. He'd done it, too; he'd loaded his gun and shot himself in the hand--the right one, as he was left-handed--but without closing his eyes. On the contrary, his outlook on the whole affair had been circumspect, withdrawn, unfathomable, for his vantage point was that of solitude, and number 1818 had been waging his own war for a long time now, all alone.Watch out for the wire.Number 1818 was without a doubt the bravest and most dangerous of the five soldiers. During his thirty months in the army, he'd given no one cause to speak of him, he'd told no one anything at all about himself. They had come out to his farm to get him one August morning, they had put him on a train, and as far as he knew, it was up to him to stay alive if he ever wanted to go home again. Once, he'd strangled an officer in his company. It was by the Woëvre, during an offensive. No one had seen him. He'd pinned the man down with a knee to the chest and strangled him. He'd grabbed his gun and run off, bent low beneath the fireworks overhead, and that had been the end of it.His wife had been a foundling, too, and now that he was far from her side, he remembered the softness of her skin. It was like a tear in the fabric of his sleep. And he often recalled the perspiration pearling on her skin, after she had worked all day long with him, and her poor 0hands. His wife's hands were cracked and hard as those of any man. They'd hired up to three day laborers at the same time, and there was more than enough work for the lot of them on the farm, but all the men, everywhere, had been sent away to the war, and his wife had been left to carry on alone. She was twenty-one, nine years younger than he was.He also had a little boy, who'd been conceived during his first visit home on leave, and then he'd gotten his second leave because of the baby, who was already walking from one chair to another, a strong little fellow like his father, with his mother's soft skin. They'd named him Baptistin. In thirty months, he'd been home twice on leave, and once he'd simply taken off on his own, without getting any farther than the gare de l'Est in Paris, because it just hadn't been in the cards, but even though she was a thousand kilometers away from him and could barely read or write, his wife had understood what to do, and for the first time in his life, he had wept. Ever since his earliest memory--of a plane tree, its scent, its peeling bark--he could not recall ever shedding a single tear, and with any luck, he would never cry again.The third soldier was the only one of the five condemned men who still believed there was a chance they would not end up before a firing squad. He reasoned that the army would hardly be going to the trouble of dragging them all the way to the front of the lines in a different combat zone simply to shoot them. The prisoners had been tried in a village in the Somme. There had been no attenuating circumstances for the fifteen men who had set out on this journey. Twice they had halted, so that a few of their party could be taken off God knows where, reducing their number to ten, then five. They had traveled all night in one train, all day in a second one, been loaded onto first one truck, then another. They'd headed south, then toward the sunset, then to the north. The last five had walked along a road (escorted by some dragoons who were not at all pleased to be there), they'd been given some dry bread and water, and had the dressings on their wounds changed in a village in ruins. Number 1818 no longer had the faintest idea where he was.The sky was white, blank, empty; the artillery had fallen silent. It was very cold, and except for the miry road, deeply rutted by the war, that ran through this nameless village, everything was covered with snow, as in the Vosges. But there were no mountains, as there were in the Vosges. No gullies, no ridges to wear out poor soldiers, as there were in the Argonne. And the dirt this farmer had crumbled in his fingers wasn't the soil of Champagne or the Meuse. It was something else, something that seemed to fly in the face of all common sense, and it was only after the man now following him through the narrow trenches had kicked over to him an old button from a uniform that he'd been convinced of the truth: they had returned to their original point of departure somewhere in the Artois and Picardy, an area that had become a slaughterhouse for soldiers from Newfoundland. During those seventy-two hours when they'd been carted all over Creation, snow had fallen, heavy, silent, and patient, like himself, and this snowfall had blanketed everything--the savagely wounded fields, the burned-out farms, the trunks of the dead apple trees, the lost cases of supplies and ammunition.Watch out for the wire.The man behind him in line--the fourth of the five soldiers who had been stripped of their helmets, regimental badges, insignia, jacket and overcoat pockets, who carried not a single family photo, Christian cross, Star of David, crescent of Islam, or anything that would amount to damn-all--had been born in Marseille, in a neighborhood of Italian immigrants called Belle de Mai. He had been assigned number 7328 at a recruiting office in Bouches-du-Rhône. His name was Angel. In the opinion of all those who had known him, at one point or another during the twenty-six years he'd spent on this earth, never had a man been more ill named.He was almost as beautiful as an angel, however, and attractive to women, even virtuous ones. He was slender, sinewy, with eyes darker and more mysterious than the night, two dimples flanking his smile and another gracing his chin, a nose just Neapolitan enough to earn him the proud distinction of a barracks tag ("Big conk, big cock"), thick hair, a princely mustache, an accent softer than a song, and, above all, the general air of someone to whom love is due as a matter of course. But whosoever had fallen victim to his honeyed glances only to be chilled by his stony egotism could vouch for the fact that he was sly, deceitful, quarrelsome, thieving, back-stabbing, stingy beyond believe, willing to swear to the most outrageous lie on the grave of his sainted mother, prone to hysterics at the slightest little explosion, raring to go whenever a neighboring regiment was sent up the line, adept at trafficking in tobacco and the addresses of pen pals, a snitch afraid of his own shadow, by trade a good-for-nothing, and by his own admission the most pathetic example of all the Poor Bastards at the Front. Except that he hadn't had time to meet all that many of them, so he wasn't one hundred percent sure about that last item.All in all, number 7328 had been at the front for three months, the last three of the year just ended. Before that he'd been in a training camp in Joigny. He'd learned to recognize a few good burgundies, at least by their labels, and to shift the ill humor of the noncoms onto the next fellow. And before that, he'd been in Saint-Pierre Prison, in Marseille, where ever since July 31, 1914, when everyone had gone crazy, he'd been serving a five-year sentence for what he always referred to as "an affair of honor," or "an affair of the heart," depending on whether his listener was a man or a woman, when in fact it had been an argument between two neighborhood pimps that had ended badly.That summer, his third one behind bars, they'd been scrounging around even for old-timers and common criminals to beef up the depleted regiments, so they'd let him choose. He had chosen to wager, along with some other imbeciles, that the war would be over in a matter of weeks, that either the French or the Germans would inevitably give way somewhere along the line, and that he'd be out before Christmas. As a result, after spend