The movie’s not too short, either. In fact, given my reaction to the innumerable characters, twists, and convenient coincidental plot devices, it was a bit too long. Jeunet’s last film, Amelie, captured audiences with what I termed its “expressionistic” camera. And it had every right to do so. I have never felt better upon leaving a theatre than the night I saw Amelie. While no one is skipping their way back home after Engagement, it seems poised to capture moviegoers around the world.
And there are very real reasons why it should. Jeunet’s visuals are breathtaking; beautiful and sad and playful all at once. His recreation of trench warfare in WWI is, like any reasonably faithful depiction of armed conflict, such a disturbing argument against war that it really isn’t an argument anymore. Mathilde’s (Audrey Tautou) search for her supposedly dead fiance is a romance full of despair and hope and all that stuff an audience wants when it’s in the mood for romance.
But two things stopped me from enjoying the movie, and they’re related. They have to do with pulling me from the world of the film into the less enjoyable world of critic. The main problem is that Jeunet has constructed a fable, the way Amelie and City of Lost Children were fables, only it doesn’t work here. City of Lost Children took place in a world we did not recognize. Amelie took place in a world we recognized but one which had been filtered by the wide-eyed fantastic vision of the title character. Jeunet is so good at creating that alternate reality that when he does it in service of actual historical background he makes the fantastic seem overly-coincidental. This creates a distance in the viewer who wants to be sucked in by the wonderful details but is continuously struck with things they can’t believe. Along the same lines, the relationship between Mathilde and Manech is romanticized and fairy-tale-esque, and I for one could not follow her quest on an emotional level because all I knew of Manech was a shell-shocked crazy.
I’m not sure what the cure for this is. I like the mixture of the fantastic and the familiar, but the mixture is tricky, and can too easily become something that works neither as fantasy nor as reality. Do I want Jeunet to be less talented at creating WWI? No. Do I want him to abandon his childlike sense of wonder at everyday things? No. But neither can I fully appreciate a film where these two talents are at war to the point where I am drawn out of the experience of watching every time they come into contact.