21 December 2004 | lawprof
A Very Long Search for a Loved One
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet in the hit, "Amelie," employed scintillating Audrey Tatou, the most expressive young French actress in film today, to portray a whimsical and charming girl-woman in search of love. With her now as a young French rural ingénue searching for years after The Great War (aka World War I or, even better, The War to End All Wars) for a probably killed fiancé, Jeunet crafted a moving, often penetrating story centering on the charnel carnage of trench warfare.
Lame as a single-digit-age child because of polio and living with relatives who took over after her parents were killed in an accident, Mathilde is befriended by Manech (Gasparad Ulliel). Mathilde, a loner separated from her peers by her disability, and Manech become closest friends. Late adolescence brings love and lust, commitment and an engagement.
But in 1917 the French Army needed fresh meat for the bloody maw that was warfare on the almost terminally static Western Front. And off went Manech along with many others who never returned.
Employing the harshest discipline of any Western army in modern history, the French Army (which gave the world the Dreyfus trial and in World War I actually used decimation to punish mutinous regiments and divisions) sentences Manech and four others to be cast into No Man's Land without weapons, without any possibility of being allowed to return but with the macabre requirement that they respond to morning roll call if alive (not a good bet). Their alleged crime was self-mutilation to get out of combat (what we call in the American military, "SIW," Self-Inflicted Wounds).
Mathilde in 1920, steely faithful in a moving and believable way, searches fervently for her fiancé whom she believes "must" be alive somewhere, somehow. Employing artful stratagems and enlisting the willing, the paid and the dragooned, her search takes her to cities and battlefields. With resort to a child's employment of magical thinking she frequently whispers tests about what will happen in immediate, ordinary circumstances with one result "proving" for her that Manech is still alive. Tatou makes this self-deception appealing and infinitely sad.
As Spielberg did in "Saving Private Ryan," Jeunet brings the immediacy of the meat-grinding battlefield to the viewer over and over again through superb if sometimes difficult to watch cinematography. Of course no film truly captures the desperation, the epidemic fatality that gripped and demoralized the French Army after years of immobile, set-piece fighting. One needs to read Robert Graves or Siegfried Sassoon for that. But Jeunet has brought to the screen the most realistic World War I trench scenes since "All Quiet on the Western Front" (the 1930 original, of course).
Tatou is an acting tsunami here, alternately beguiling and tense and always hopeful while fighting despair. Expect to see her in many fine roles in the future. She's marvelous.
The entire cast is excellent-few are known in the U.S.
A remarkable movie with an ending that will satisfy and disturb at the same time.
Tatou and Jeunet deserve Oscar nominations.