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A Very Long Engagement - It was not a war against an ideology like the Second World War. It was a war for nothing



Feature by: Jack Foley

JEAN-Pierre Jeunet, the director of new French film A Very Long Engagement, has long been fascinated by the First World War.

"I have absolutely no idea why, but I make the same joke all the time - that I think I died in another life during the First World War," he explained, during a recent London press conference.

"Maybe it’s not a joke. Who knows? I met a guy in San Francisco who told me he had exactly the same feeling. Maybe we died together in the same trench!

"But when I was a teenager I read everything about the First World War, every book. I wasted a lot of holidays because they gave me nightmares, even today it’s very difficult to read some of that stuff."

This fascination with The Great War, however, has prompted Jeunet to direct what will arguably rate as one of the finest films of the year - and one which reunites him with his Amélie star, Audrey Tautou.

A Very Long Engagement takes place before, during and after the First World War, as Tautou's disabled lover, Mathilde, bids to search for her fiancee, Manech, who has supposedly perished in the fighting.

Manech was one of five French soldiers who was convicted of self-mutilation (in a bid to discharge themselves) and sent to the front to face near-certain death in no-man's-land - but despite hearing from numerous sources that he has been killed, Mathilde refuses to concede defeat until she has proof of her lover's demise.

Her ensuing journey captures the magic and excitement of being in love, while also offering a harrowing insight into the horror and sheer futility of war.

The trench scenes, in particular, are gut-wrenching in the extreme and come as close to capturing what life must have been like for the soldiers as another First World War classic, Paths of Glory.

And for Jeunet, the film helps to unlock one of the great taboos in French life - namely, talk of The Great War.

"For a long time it was a kind of taboo," he explained. "I mean, even today, the war is a kind of fashion in France.

"My explanation for the sudden change in attitude is that maybe because we are going to lose the last survivors in the next few years, because they are very old now – between 100 and 110.

"It was in a magazine that 20 people were still alive from the war, and that was two years ago. It’s like we don’t want it to be too late, everybody wants to read something about their great grandfathers. It’s very close to our lives.

"And we had a very bad picture about the First World War. It was stock footage, and they walked too fast because they shot at 16 frames per second at this time. It looked a little bit comic, like in a Chaplin movie.

"But now we understand it was a very difficult war and the life was so tough, and it was young people who died for just arms sellers. It was not a war against an ideology like the Second World War. It was a war for nothing. We lost one million and a half people, it was huge."

Jeunet remains justifiably proud of his work on A Very Long Engagement and maintains that he did not feel under any pressure to deliver under the burden of a bigger budget than usual.

"I’m very conservative with money; I’m from the generation after the Second World War, I am 51, and my parents always said I had to eat up all the dinner on my plate so I am very respectful about other people’s money," he observes, candidly.

"And as for pressure, there was none while making it – the pressure comes now!"

Needless to say, Jeunet also welcomed the opportunity of being reunited with Tautou, who he has come to hold in very high-esteem.

"For me, she is the perfect actress because now we know she is able to make everything. Drama and light comedy like in Amélie, that’s pretty rare.

"On the other hand, she’s very technical which is very useful for me. She has a great sense of timing, she knows the camera, she’s very special. And she has a face like an elf. She’s the perfect actress."

With Tautou on board, however, the film has been unfairly described, in some quarters, as Amélie Deux or Amélie Goes To War.

But it is a criticism that Tautou was fully prepared to accept, for as she concluded: "The actress playing Mathilde looks the same as the one in Amélie. And the director of A Very Long Engagement shot in almost the same way as the one who made Amélie!

"But I have no confusion about it. I never compare Mathilde to Amélie, but I was clever enough to know that these comparisons would be made.

"I don’t have a complex about the part of Amélie and the fact that there are thousands of people who think about me because of that part because I know there are some out there who don’t think that way.

"It’s just nice to be recognised for something - even if it’s only one thing, it’s better than nothing."

 

 

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