Jean-Pierre Jeunet, With A Distaste for War, On His Bittersweet “A Very Long Engagement”
by Liza Bear
“A Very Long Engagement,” Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s fourth film after “Delicatessen,” “City of Lost Children,” and “Amelie,” reunites the director with Audrey Tautou in an unflinching performance as Mathilde, a polio-handicapped young woman who refuses to accept the loss of her 19-year-old fiance Manech (newcomer Guillaume Ulliel). The film is an adaptation of Sebastien Japrisot’s World War I novel about five soldiers court-martialled for self-mutilation to avoid combat. Punishment consists of being ejected from an infamous trench named Bingo Crepuscule [the French for dawn] into the no-man’s land between the French and German fronts, and presumably killed. Mathilde’s intuition tells her that Manech is alive, and how can love be wrong? However, unlike certain world leaders, she hires a private detective to discover the facts.
Multiple Rashomon-like reenactments of the events that night ensue in a dense, intricately constructed plot. The impeccably mounted, superbly crafted film, bound to be a hot Oscar contender in all major categories, is meticulous in its recreation of both trench warfare, the rural French countryside that’s home to the conscripts and the bustling markets of twenties Paris. Liza Bear recently spoke with Jean-Pierre Jeunet at the Regency hotel in New York.
indieWIRE: So, did this film give you a taste for war?
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: A taste? More like a distaste. All wars are imbecilic and the last resort. But I wanted to tell the story of World War I because it’s very little known — we have false images of it from 16 fps stop action footage and Veterans Day parades — old folks with berets, medals, flags. Somehow they make war look funny. Whereas in fact the war was fought by guys like us — 19-year-old farmers and workers living the hell of trench warfare. WWI wasn’t even an ideological war like the second World War where we had to beat the Nazis. It was purely a war for the benefit of the arms manufacturers. It was about money. And right now this war is in vogue because the last surviving witnesses are about to disappear. They’re all between 100 and 110 years old. But I’ve been interested in WWI since I was a teenager.
iW: How were you able to recreate the horrific conditions in the trenches so precisely?
Jeunet: It was easy. I’ve read everything. For the war scenes we went straight to the historical record — photographs or written accounts. Not one detail was invented. The telephone line when the condemned soldiers are walking down the trench, that’s from the book “The Wooden Crosses.” The soldier with half his face blown off whose boots are stolen, that’s from another book. The horse in the tree and the broken crucifix are famous WWI photos. Sebastien Japrisot, the author of the novel, did three years of research and for the production design we went back to his sources.
iW: What part of France did you grow up in?
Jeunet: As it happens, in the East, not far from the battlefields of Verdun… I was an only child for eleven years but I never got bored. I didn’t like people to bother me. I still don’t! My father worked for the telephone company. When I was 17 one of my parents’ friends came to our house with a Super 8 camera. I understood that’s all it took to make films. So I went to work at the phone company to save up money to buy a camera.
iW: One thing that’s really striking in the décor is the mud.
Jeunet: It was the real thing. You’d think it was easy to find a place to dig a trench, but the French countryside is either agricultural or wooded. And you can’t wreck the farmland or burn the trees. So we had to scout military terrain which is very often mined. Finally at the last minute we found a location which was extremely muddy and difficult, especially during the artificial rain scenes. But the real challenge was recreating Paris in 1920– all the period details like the markets, the Gare d’Orsay railway station, the steam engines and the Eiffel Tower with the former Trocadero palace. We shot for six months in 120 different locations.
iW: Audrey Tautou as Mathilde rides a fine line between sentimentality and intense emotion.
Jeunet: Yes, that was really important. I don’t care for facile emotion, the wail of the violins. But essentially that was Audrey’s doing. The idea for the film had been in my head since I’d read the book in ’91 — after making “Delicatessen.” But it wasn’t until I’d worked with Tautou on “Amelie” that I knew who could be Mathilde. It was her or nothing. When Tatou accepted that revived my interest in the project and I went to see Warners.
iW: Was the ignominious trench, Bingo Crepuscule, based on a real incident?
Jeunet: Absolutely. Japrisot had found a very short text written by a general, which said that of 45 soldiers who had self-mutilated, Marechal Petain wanted to shoot 25. He reneged because he was afraid of mutiny in the ranks, and instead ordered for them to be thrown in no man’s land [at night from a trench]. That was the basis for Japrisot’s plot. He assumed they would be killed [by the enemy] by dawn. It wasn’t such a scandal because after all 2,200 French combatants were court-martialed during WWI.
iW: To set an example.
Jeunet: Voila. Either folks who stole a rabbit from a farm, or people who tried to escape or who in the confusion of battle saw their colleagues die and retreated. Kubrick‘s “Paths of Glory” was based on this too.
iW: There’s a strong thriller element to the film as Mathilde doggedly pursues her investigations of exactly what happened that night from multiple sources.
Jeunet: I reinforced the suspense to make the story more cinematographic. The intrigue is fairly complicated. For “Amelie” my writing partner Guillaume Laurent and I worked side by side but since then Guillaume got married to Sandrine Bonnaire, so this time we used e-mail.
iW: I brought my pic-sticks as a reminder. It’s not only the strong emotions but the accumulation of details that moves you.
Jeunet: Yes, I’m very into detail. I came up with the Mikado (pick sticks) for the seduction scene between Mathilde and Manech. I was inspired by a Jacques Prevert poem in which a young man strikes matches to see his lover as she undresses. The poem says, one match for your face, one for your torso, and so on.
iW: Is the end of the film the same as the end of the book?
Jeunet: Exactly. Bittersweet. For the American public it might seem a bit strange. But amnesia in warfare was common. There’s a famous story of a soldier who was found after the war who’d lost his memory. His photograph was published in the newspapers. In reply, hundreds of families claimed him as a husband or a son. After all, one million and a half families were mourning their disappeared, and many could not come to terms with the loss. It’s weird.
iW: Yet in the film there’s something really stoical about Mathilde’s persistence.
Jeunet: She’s very headstrong. But that’s what moved me most about the book. I recognized myself in it. To have gone from working for the phone company at 17 to making a 45 million euro film with Warner Bros, you have to be pretty obstinate… Oh, we have time for a quick game of Mikado.