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DVD Pick: "A Very Long Engagement"

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Based on the novel by Sébastien Japrisot, "A Very Long Engagement" (2004) is a French-language drama about an incident involving soldiers at the front during World War I. The film was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Art Direction and Cinematography. The star of the movie is the leading lady from 2001's "Amélie," Audrey Tautou.

"A Very Long Engagement" is an unusual film with a story structure that reminded me of a police procedural. The narrative is driven by an investigation carried out by the protagonist, a crippled young woman named Mathilde (Tautou). Shortly after World War I, she tracks down and talks to anyone who may be able to help her find out the truth about what happened to her fiancé, who was reportedly killed on the field of battle.

The plot in "A Very Long Engagement" is extremely complicated, and I had difficulty keeping track of the movie's many characters. I envision some viewers will want to watch the film more than once just so they can get everything straight.

If you're expecting "A Very Long Engagement" to be a good love story, I fear you're in for a disappointment. To my way of thinking, the story isn't really about the love between Mathilde and her fiancé, nor is it about whether or not they will reunite. Instead, it's about solving the mystery of what happened to Mathilde's fiancé and some of his comrades in arms.

As I watched "A Very Long Engagement," I felt as if a talented storyteller was spinning a tall tale. I didn't find the movie particularly emotionally involving, yet there was much in it that compelled my interest. In some ways, it reminded me of the kind of 19th-century novel that covers a wide cross-section of an entire society.

The director of "A Very Long Engagement" was Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who also directed "Amélie," and there are many stylistic similarities. He has an impressive visual style and uses lots of special effects. The film contains many flashbacks showing the barbarity of war. However, the movie often has a cuteness about it that I sometimes found off-putting.

On DVD, there's a feature-length audio commentary track by writer-director Jeunet that I thought was both interesting and informative. Speaking in French, but with English subtitles provided, he discusses almost everything you'd want to know about his movie, including where it differs from Japrisot's novel. Jeunet claims the film used 600 technicians, 80 actors, and over 2000 extras. He describes how American actress Jodie Foster, who is fluent in French, came to appear in the film in a minor role. He also talks about the late Ticky Holgado, the actor who gave a fine performance as the private detective, doing his scenes while suffering from a terminal illness (lung cancer according to the Internet Movie Database).

The DVD comes as a two-disc set, with the second disc containing four bonus materials with a total running time of about two hours. All four of these extras are in French, but English subtitles are available. I found them interesting only sporadically.

There's a one-hour-fourteen-minute making-of documentary titled "A Year at the Front: Behind the Scenes of 'A Very Long Engagement'." Among other things, this shows how Jeunet had a field planted with flax, waited weeks for it to grow, then used a helicopter during shooting to make the flax undulate. The output of all this work in the finished film is a visually stunning sequence about the arrest of a man named Benoît Notre-Dame that lasts only 15 seconds.

Perhaps the most interesting bonus material on Disc 2 for me was "Parisian Scenes," a 14-minute featurette about re-creating the look of Paris circa 1920. They shot inside the art museum Musée d'Orsay, and in the movie it is made to look like what it used to be, a train station (Gare d'Orsay). They also created shots of the Place de l'Opéra where it looks as though it is teeming with vintage vehicles. For the sequence in which Jodie Foster's character is introduced, they re-created the bustling marketplace at Les Halles (Zola's "Belly of Paris").

There's also a bonus material titled "Before the Explosion…," a 13-minute featurette about the zeppelin explosion sequence. I didn't find this featurette particularly interesting, but I do think the sequence helped make an important point in the film, namely the idiocy of the leadership in setting up an emergency hospital in a building containing a hydrogen-filled zeppelin. I believe this helps us to understand the desperation of the soldiers to escape the madness.

The final bonus material on Disc 2 consists of 14 deleted scenes (total running time: 11 minutes) with optional director's commentary. I found these rather boring.

On the next page, I've listed all the details for the "A Very Long Engagement" DVD.

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