Jesse Jarnow

a very long engagement

A Very Long Engagement is grotesque, sweet, and darkly hilarious — and sustains these three traits, in nearly perfect balance, for its entirety. There is hardly a moment that isn’t all at once. It’s also (easily) the most Decemberists-y movie ever made: a distinctly French romance set in the trenches and hospitals of World War I.

People often speak of maturation, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more clear-cut example than this. In City of Lost Children, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and collaborator Marc Caro created an authoritatively immersive reality. With cloned half-wits, a circus strongman, a cult of cyclops (and that’s not to mention the talking brain) the film was a bit surreal. Amelie, on the other hand, applied the same weird logic to the task of a Rube Goldberg-like romance that genuinely was romantic (if simultaneously a wee too cute).

Turned out, the best way to resolve these two over-excited directions was by introducing a hard-line “realism” into the picture. A Very Long Engagement doesn’t flinch from brutality. There are decapitations, maimings, mutilations, and about a half-dozen other varieties of death. Whether or not it’s accurate to classify these devices as “realism” is another question, but they certainly achieve that effect — people in the theater where I saw the film often turned their heads from the screen during particularly graphic sequences.

In a way, the humor and romance help the violent stuff go down, or at least give us a way to rationalize watching it. Mostly, though, the characters are such unique and vulnerable specimens that it’s nearly impossible not to get drawn in, and soon stirred by the two dozen simple twists of fate strung along an elegantly knotted plot dotted with nooses. Highly recommended.

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