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
"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,
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
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
"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,
"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
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
"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."