In the trenches of the First World War, where life was always horrendous, there were soldiers who considered a non-fatal bullet wound a delightful event, their ticket out of hell. This long nightmare of suffering first entered my own imagination in childhood, when my Uncle Arthur told me about a bonfire a few Canadian soldiers built behind the lines. A bullet somehow found its way into the woodpile, exploded in the heat, and wounded a young private, sending him back to Canada with a smile on his face. Arthur noticed that after the accident several soldiers drew closer to the fire, hoping they too would get lucky.
He said little about what his generation called The Great War, but that story lodged in my brain as an unforgettable metaphor. It was Arthur's way of encapsulating what he and his comrades endured in the most terrible of wars.
Other soldiers tried to take charge of their destiny by shooting themselves in a hand or foot. This was a crime comparable to desertion, a Self-inflicted Wound (SIW). In the British Army 3,894 men went to prison for SIW. The French sometimes executed self-wounders. That's the ugly fact at the core of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's epic of French life early in the 20th century, A Very Long Engagement, which arrived in North American movie theatres late in 2004.
Jeunet wraps a complicated, 133-minute narrative around Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) and Mathilde (Audrey Tautou), best friends in childhood and lovers in adolescence. Manech goes off to the trenches and eventually the authorities inform Mathilde that he died in action, no details given. She imagines he's still alive and sets out to learn the truth from his comrades and their relatives. She discovers what the audience knows from the beginning, that Manech was found guilty of SIW and sentenced to death. He and four other convicted men had their hands tied behind them and were pushed out of the trench and into No Man's Land, to be killed by the Germans.
Through flashbacks Jeunet returns often to the terror and squalor of the trenches, conveyed with more power than in any other movie I can remember; by comparison, trench warfare in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (from which Jeunet borrows a famous long tracking shot) looks almost pleasant. Following the heroine, Jeunet moves from village cafes to Paris offices to archives where the French army guards its ugliest secrets. A genius-level orchestrator of computer images, he shocks us when he suddenly exposes a great Paris square, its 1920s cars returned to it by digital magic.
When Mathilde goes hunting information at Les Halles, the now-vanished food market of Paris, Jodie Foster turns up to give a deft performance as a widow running a stall.
Like the era he's depicting, Jeunet is obsessed by trains; he loves screen-filling close-ups of their wheels and pistons. He sometimes neglects the emotions of the characters and he often confuses us with too many faces covered in the same mud and the same beards. But no one shows landscapes and cityscapes better. (Some claim they can see the artificiality, but his pictures look real to me.)
A Very Long Engagement began life as a best-selling novel by Sebastien Japrisot (1931-2003), the pen name of a writer whose thrillers owe something to Georges Simenon and something to James M. Cain. His pseudonym is an anagram of Jean-Baptiste Rossi, his real name, under which he published his first novel, a success de scandale. That was Les mal partis, written when he was 17, a love story about a 14-year-old boy and a 26-year-old nun. Later he wrote everything from advertising copy to the French translation of Catcher in the Rye.
Japrisot made his first appearance in 1962 as a crime novelist. He began with an ingenious thriller that came into English as The 10:30 from Marseilles and later, in a second translation, as The Sleeping Car Murders. It opens with the discovery of a woman's body on a train that's just arrived in Paris. In the next few days potential witnesses are murdered, one by one, while the police (who talk like the tired, depressed cops in Swedish thrillers) grow increasingly baffled.
In this first book Japrisot's technique recalls Rashomon, the Japanese classic; as we slip into the minds of several witnesses we realize that each of them has a different story to tell. At the end Japrisot delivers two clever surprises, only one of which we might have anticipated.
A dozen more thrillers turned Japrisot into something of an eminence in French literature; this September the University of Bristol will hold a conference on his work and assemble a book of essays about him. A Very Long Engagement, while more ambitious in scope than his thrillers, sometimes adopts the tone of a police procedural and uses devices his readers will find familiar, such as narrators with conflicting memories of the same events. He adds another crime-novel layer when Mathilde discovers that someone else is pursuing the same truths. It turns out that a prostitute whose lover was among the condemned five has been searching for the officers responsible and murdering them, one by one.
Jeunet's film embraces the essence of Japrisot's novel but changes a few elements. Several incidents that are covered by the book in a couple of sentences expand into cinematic spectacles. In the book Mathilde must use a wheelchair, which could have made the film tediously static; Jeunet reduces her handicap to a severe limp. To emphasize Mathilde's resemblance to an obsessive truth seeker in a fairy tale, Jeunet gives her part to Tautou, the star of Amelie, the successful fable he filmed in 2001.
Although we spend a lot of time with Mathilde and her investigation, Jeunet keeps returning to the inferno of the trenches. He wants no one to forget the callous generals who brutalized their troops and wasted their lives. His youngest characters arrive in the army as innocent teenagers and soon turn into bitter old men. In a few years their intense disenchantment will change the tone of Western culture and the term "Lost Generation" will emerge. Looking at these wretched victims as they stumble through mud and icy water toward the likelihood of death by machine gun, we're watching the mentality of the 20th century taking shape.