Daily Archives: April 24, 2005

A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de fiançailles)

A Very Long Engagement
(Un long dimanche de fiançailles)
dir Jean-Pierre Jeunet
France 2004

The first thing I noticed at this screening was that it was two-thirds full at 5.30 pm on a Wednesday afternoon – for a film that had already been on release for several weeks. Then I found myself sitting next to a couple of women who must have been in their 80s. In fact, most of the audience for this film about young lovers appeared to be over 40. Both these observations were unusual and very encouraging.

Around this time I also read a short item in Sight & Sound, reporting on the phenomenon of films for older audiences which confounded industry expectations by doing much better in midweek than at weekends when the industry usually looks closely at box office performance. Vera Drake provided a particularly striking example of a film that found its audience in midweek. Other reports this year about the general fall-off in audiences across cinema markets in the developed world have begun to cite the failure of the industry to attract older audiences as a factor in this failure to sustain the film exhibition business.

When the film started, I worried that it might be far too violent for my older neighbours, But there was no noticeable reaction and the suggestion that they might be offended was more a reflection on my assumptions. The violence was necessary to represent the desperation that men felt at being trapped in the trenches in the First World War — being willing to blow off their own fingers or toes rather than remain a front line soldier.

The theme of A Very Long Engagement does seem likely to attract both younger and older audiences with its combination of historical romance and surrealist comedy and its revelations about a war which continues to fascinate contemporary young people for whom there is no direct connection through living relatives. It is also interesting that for Anglo-American audiences, the film explores France at war — an under-represented theme for Hollywood films (see also Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, due for re-release in the UK in November 2005)).

But is it any good? Would it be worth using with students? My first thought is that this is a big screen film and even with video projection would feel diminished in a classroom setting. However, I must accept that for many audiences films are generally seen on small screens and therefore this may not be such a drawback. It is also subtitled, but I think there is enough visual invention to persuade reluctant students to overcome their aversion to subtitles — which I think is not as prevalent as is sometimes suggested.

As a ‘spectacle’, the film is never less than impressive and is a worthy successor to Jeunet’s previous film, Amélie and also to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — the two previous subtitled champions that no doubt Warner Bros hoped to emulate with this release. The whole issue of ‘film as spectacle’, with its budget implications, is useful for studying cinema as ‘institution’. French cinema has tried to develop both the genres (think the heritage film, fantasy and science fiction and the action thriller) and the financial basis for such production — with the latter being more problematic. Luc Besson is perhaps the only French producer who has consistently worked with (relatively) high budgets. A Very Long Engagement cost $55 million (according to IMDB) — on a par with the average for a Hollywood main feature — and represents a co-production between Warner Bros and various French production companies, including regional funds. Unfortunately, the production deals led to an unfortunate battle over the ‘nationality’ of the film for awards purposes that eventually damaged its marketing campaign. It was thought to be an ‘American’ film in France and in America was not allowed as eligible for the foreign language film Oscar awards.

In aesthetic terms, the film is very stylised with a painterly golden glow for the rural home by the sea where Mathilde waits for Manech and a bleak nightmare landscape for the front line. The money has gone on aerial shots that emphasise the emotional sweep of the couple’s memories of each other and CGI to enance the visualisation of wartime France. Jeunet’s conception of his fictional world requires actors and performances to match the extravagance of the imagery. This means a heavy burden for Audrey Tautou as Mathilde. The way Jeunet has used his star in both Amelie and A Very Long Engagement will not be to everyone’s taste. Personally, I can take her performance in both films, but it is a strain and I think I prefer her in Dirty Pretty Things and He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, both of which make use of her range of talents. The huge success of Amélie has made it difficult to imagine her outside the role of a quirky and determined fantasist. There is an enjoyable cameo by Jodie Foster contained within A Very Long Engagement and both her star presence, and the ways in which Jeunet has filmed many of the sequences, reminded me of the excitement of Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. I suspect that those with a deeper knowledge of French cinema will find that A Very Long Engagement uses generic elements from many other French films and explores representations in interesting ways. One colleague has suggested that a comparison between the film and the original novel by Sebastien Japrisot would be interesting, especially in terms of the character of Mathilde and how the filmic representation has been developed in relation to both Audrey Tautou’s star persona and the audience’s expectations of a romantic heroine in this kind of film spectacle.

Roy Stafford, April 2005
seen at Dukes Cinema, Lancaster

The Aviator (US 2005)

Many (male) students are still taken with Scorsese’s early de Niro/Keitel films such as Mean StreetsTaxi DriverRaging Bull and especially Goodfellas and Casino. Reputation alone will probably persuade them to watch The Aviator, but what will they make of it — and will female students start to take an interest?

The Aviator is an epic biopic, focusing on success in those two distinctively Californian businesses — aviation and Hollywood. It tells part of the story of Howard Hughes (i.e. up to the late 1940s), but younger audiences without much sense of Hughes or 30s/40s America will find the narrative a struggle. The prologue has a 10 year-old Hughes being washed by his mother and warned about the filth out there (in practice the 1913 cholera outbreak in Houston, according to Philip French in the Observer). But things happen very quickly and events flow thick and fast between 1927 and 1935 when Hughes starts breaking airspeed records. The film suggests that though he begins with the movies, Hughes’ real personal goal is to be the man who makes the fastest and the biggest aircraft imaginable.

In some ways the simplest way to define the narrative and theme of the film is to compare Hughes’ drive for business and engineering success with his failure to make durable personal relationships either with women or the men who work for him. His ‘lack’ manifests itself in the obsessive cleansing rituals and the eventual withdrawal from society. Much depends on the performances at the heart of the movie. I confess to a dread before the film at how bad Leonardo DiCaprio might be, following his miscasting in Gangs of New York. He turned out to be surprisingly good as the younger Hughes and with a beard, pretty good as the older Hughes – it was the middle years portrayal that I found difficult. Cate Blanchett impersonates Kate Hepburn so accurately, despite her different facial features, that whenever she was on screen I gave up with the narrative and just enjoyed her performance. Of course, Hepburn was a massive star (even if she was ‘box office poison’ during the mid 1930s) and it is enjoyable to revel in memories of her star performances (a golf scene reminds us of Bringing Up Baby). Kate Beckinsale has a much more difficult task in portraying Ava Gardner, partly because Gardner’s star persona largely derives from a later period. Beckinsale is rather insipid in comparison to Gardner’s flamboyant beauty. It might have been better to make her a more anonymous character – but that would then have offended the audience that knows the real story.

The climax of the narrative involves Hughes’ appearance before a House Committee investigating the monies he received during the Second World War developing aircraft that never went into production. The hostile Senator running the show (Alan Alda) has been set up by Hughes’ business rival at Pan Am who attempts to prevent Hughes and TWA challenging Pan Am’s supremacy in air transportation. The hearing offers Scorsese the opportunity for a big set piece and a critique of American capitalism. It is also something of a test case for the position the film adopts vis-a-vis Hughes as ‘hero’. It would certainly be a sequence I would use with students – not least because it brings that whole late 1940s period of witch hunts and televised congressional hearings to life.

Scorsese’s knowledge of film history is evident throughout the film and there are many great moments to pick out in Dante Ferretti’s production design. At one film premiere, Scorsese shows us the photographers literally knee deep in discarded flash bulbs which litter the red carpet and are then crushed under foot. I’m not sure, however, about the attempt to shoot whole scenes according to the prevailing Hollywood style for that point in the historical narrative. I’d have to go back and look carefully at the earlier scenes, but the one that stands out is when Scorsese switches to the colour scheme of ‘two strip’ Technicolor in which green becomes turquoise. What I at first thought were pills on Hughes’ plate turn out to be peas ­ something which becomes much more obvious when Hughes the test pilot crashes into a field of turquoise sugar beet. All of this is likely to baffle many audiences.

The Aviator is likely to end up as Scorsese’s biggest box office success (passing $100 million in the US in March 2005). It has several faults, but more triumphant successes and compared to the lack of ambition of most mainstream Hollywood films, it deserves a wider audience.

Roy Stafford, April 2005

seen at Grand Cinema, Clitheroe, Lancs