Saturday, February 18, 2006

A Very Long Cinematic Engagement

Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles (1.11.04)
Jean-Pierre Jeunet
English title: A Very Long Engagement

I couldn’t wait to see Un Long Dimanche de Fiançialles. Apparently neither could everyone else in Paris. The film is playing in many theaters in France, yet there was still a line around the block when we arrived 30 minutes early. The film was also playing in a theater directly across the street and the line was even longer. I wasn’t surprised: critics all over the country have given it stellar reviews, it had the largest budget of any film in the history of French cinema and features crowd-pleasing talents like Audrey Tautou, Jodie Foster, Marion Cotillard and the up-and-coming young heartthrob Gaspard Ullieul. Not to mention the fact that it marks the latest collaboration between director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Tautou whose last cooperation produced one of France most famous exports, Amélie.

Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles is based on the novel by Sebastien Japrisot and takes place in France near the end of World War I. It is a war film, a regional comedy, a mystery and a human drama all at once that highlights the power of enduring love and the absurdity of war. The film tells the story of Mathilde (Tautou) who searches relentlessly for her fiancée who has disappeared, one of five French soldiers believed to have been court-marshalled under mysterious circumstances and led to their death in no-man’s land. Mathilde is told of the fate of her loved one, but she does not believe he has died. Though all signs point to Manech’s death, Mathilde is convinced that her lover is still alive and refuses to back down from her intuitions. Jeunet combines humor, pathos and adventure as Mathilde sets out to discover the truth behind Manech’s disappearance and find her way back into his heart. It’s Amélie meets Cold Mountain as Audrey Tautou, in a noticeable effort to distinguish herself as a versatile actress, gives an incredibly sympathetic performance, but one that can only be characterized as “Amélie goes to war.” Tautou is magical in this film, but fails to separate herself from her previous works in which she plays the same wide-eyed tragically naïve young woman (Amélie, A La Folie… Pas du Tout, L’Auberge Espagnole, etc.) It is as if this film is telling the story of Amélie Poulain’s grandmother. There is no question that Tautou possesses a unique and magnetic screen presence, but her frail puppy-dog-eyed performance becomes a bit banal after the first hour of this movie.

Though the film depicts the graphic monstrosities of war via violent fighting scenes and bloody images, in classic Jeunet style, humor is ubiquitous throughout the picture. This comic approach to tragedy works sometimes, but fails miserably other times. The film’s comic moments sometimes appear to be extraneous and misplaced, but render Mathilde more sympathetic and stress the ridiculousness of French bureaucracy. It is through watching this absurdly unbelievable story that the spectator becomes aware of the futility and irrationality of war itself. The often slapstick humor in this movie is typically French, as I watched the natives in the audience howl uncontrollably at the more silly slapstick moments such as a mailman falling off of a bike or a cat knocking over a lantern and setting the floor on fire.
Though the film focuses on Mathilde, Gaspard Ullieul gives an unquestionably electric performance as Manech and proves himself as one of France’s rising talents. Marion Cotillard is brilliant as another war widow taking revenge on the French aristocrats responsible for her husband’s death. Jodie Foster, Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Ticky Holgado also provide strong supporting performances. I have to admit that after reading the myriad impeccable reviews of this film by French critics and expecting perfection, my anticipation somewhat eclipsed my pleasure. However, I did enjoy this movie and recommend it to anyone with a heart, a sense of humor (more specifically a French sense of humor) and nostalgia for the fabulous destiny of Amélie Poulain.

A bit about Jean-Pierre Jeunet…
After a series of television commercials and short films, Jeunet made his first feature film with partner Marc Caro in 1991; Delicatessen, a post-apocalyptic surrealist black comedy about the landlord of an apartment building who creates cannibalistic meals for his odd tenants, was a huge success and won four Césars, including Best New Director and Best Screenplay. In 1995, Caro and Jeunet joined forced again to make Cité des Enfants Perdus that tells the story of a scientist in a surrealist society who kidnaps children to steal their dreams, hoping that they slow his aging process. Cité des Enfants Perdus is disturbing, confusing and lacking in discernible narrative, but characterized by stunning, futuristic (and expensive) visuals inspired by none other than the French visionary Jules Verne and featuring more special effects than had ever been used in a French film to date. In fact, the film was so innovative that Jeunet and Caro had to create new computer software for the special effects. Despite its confusing plot and dark undertones, the film was an international success and further propelled Jeunet’s cinematic career. In 1997, Jeunet took the path of other lost French movie-making souls before him, and went to Hollywood to make another visually revolutionary yet intellectually lacking film called Alien: Resurrection starring Sigourney Weaver and Winona Ryder. In 2000, Jeunet returned to France to make a much more personal film about his beloved Montmartre, a film that would eventually become the biggest worldwide success of any film in French history, namely Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain starring Audrey Tautou and Mathieu Kassovitz. Like Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles, Amélie is a mélange of comedy, drama, romance and adventure that is often more visually pleasing than intellectually simulating, but appeals to a diverse international audience and is a thoroughly enjoyable cinematic experience. In the film, Amélie (Tautou), an innocent and naive girl in Paris possessing her own sense of values, decides to help those around her and, along the way, discovers love herself. The entire world fell in love with Amélie Poulain and will be eternally grateful to Jean-Pierre Jeunet for introducing her.

Thoughts on…2/11/04
Liquid Speed
I have one thing to say about the coffee in France: isfydsidyusiodusnsiduis”_à(è”_(è”_nqdiuçeètçehvdfhdifudiofudoçà”_’jfksfjkdfjdkfjdklfjdvnvysdo*$^ù*$^psdsdusduisdunivjivuviuid!!!!!!!!!!!!! I’m telling you, they put drugs in the espresso here. Be warned: the coffee in Paris is absolutely nothing like the caffeinated liquid substance people drink in the U.S. First of all, coffee here is more syrup-like than fluid. Secondly, when you order a “café crème” don’t expect a large mug filled with flavorful, creamy coffee; you’ll actually be getting a tiny cup filled about 4 centimeters high with extremely powerful toxins that will make you do somersaults in your seat for the next three hours. Thirdly, there is no such thing as coffee “to go” in this country. If you want a cup of java, you’ll have to sit in a café and drink it. None of this walking-down-the-street-sipping-your-iced-coffee-and-reading-the-newspaper-on-the-way-to-work nonsense; get out those cigarettes and prepare to sip ‘n smoke all day long. If you do crave “café à emporter” however, the omnipresent gods of joe have finally attacked Paris shores and there are now Starbucks cafés throughout the city offering frappuccinos and other whipped creations “to go.” Starbucks is also the only place in Paris where one can get flavored coffee. And, last but not least, please note that the French do not consume coffee as if it is water à la Américain. A tiny cup in the morning with one’s croissant, a mini café crème after lunch and another after dessert in the evening – c’est tout. You will simply have to save the venti white chocolate caramel macchiatos for your next trip to New York.

Comme Une Image

Agnès Jaoui

After impressing both French and overseas audiences with their 2000 Oscar-nominated comedy, Le Goût des Autres (The Taste of Others), Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri have joined forces again – both on and off screen – to bring us one of the best French films of the year, Comme Une Image (aka Look at Me in America). This film won the award for Best Screenplay in Cannes, and, in my opinion, rightly so. The dialogue is nuanced and subtly witty, an impressive mélange of insinuating humor and emotional observation.

The film focuses on a successful Parisian novelist, Etienne Cassard (Jean-Pierre Bacri) and his circle of friends, colleagues and family. Cassard is rude, brash, self-centered, and seemingly incapable of caring about anyone but himself. Bacri is incredibly believable in the role, and even evokes a bit of sympathy for his selfish, brutish character. Yet Comme Une Image remains an ensemble performance, as personalities clash when Cassard’s entourage takes a trip to his country home. The film is both about the abuse of power and also about self-esteem. The spectator is exposed, on the one hand, to Cassard’s budding relationship with rising novelist, Pierre Miller (Laurent Grévill), a professional relationship ostensibly serving no other function than social advancement. Pierre grovels at Cassard’s feet and will do almost anything to impress him. He also agrees to appear on a vulgar, popular talk show to promote his new book, which is appropriately titled, Comme Une Image. Later in the film, even his wife (played by Jaoui herself) acknowledges that power has changed him. On the other hand, the spectator witnesses the often strained yet inescapably loving rapport between Cassard and his 20-year-old daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry). Unlike the beautiful women usually present at the esteemed social functions Cassard attends, Lolita is overweight, insecure and desperate for her father’s respect and affections. Yet her father constantly ignores her, pays no attention to her singing and even makes jokes about her weight. Through the film, Lolita continues to ask him if he’s listened to the tape she’s made for him of her singing, and the answer is always the same. It also doesn’t help that Cassard’s new wife, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts) is about half his age, beautiful, thin and, even worse, likable. Lolita is convinced that people are only nice to her because they are interested in her father, however, gradually, we see her blossom and discover that it might just be possible for someone to love her for who she is. The film’s plot is merely a vehicle to expose the emotional truths inherent in this diverse group of people, each of whom undergoes a sentimental transformation throughout the course of the film. This film is, in all senses of the word, decidedly French, but its humorous undertones and hopeful ending separates it from some of its more depressive cousins. Agnès Jaoui has once again proved herself as a powerhouse of acting, singing, writing and directing, and I desperately await her next acting project, La Maison de Nina.

No comments: