Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A Very Long Engagement

A Very Long Engagement (Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004), set in World War 1 and its aftermath, is an improbable mixture of sweetness and shadow -- an unabashedly romantic "chick film" with palpable commercial ambitions that nevertheless more successfully conveys working-class sentiments against war than more cooly artistic films like Paths of Glory (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1957). The heroine Mathilde's fiancé Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), together with four other French soldiers, gets sentenced to be thrown out and left to die in No Man's Land between the French and German lines, on account of self-mutilation to escape the front line and go home.

A Very Long Engagement

Mathilde (played by Audrey Tautou) is convinced that Manech didn't die, so the film is plotted along her search for her beloved. (I wouldn't be giving away anything if I say she finds him in the end -- what film starring Tautou can have less than a happy ending?) Mathilde's search parallels that of a prostitute Tina Lombardi, whose lover was one of the five condemned soldiers and who is determined to avenge his death (which she does, killing two officers who blocked news of the pardon that would have saved the five men's lives, and she gets guillotined -- the sentence she faces with courage and dignity). Following their searches (for the most part Mathilde's rather than Tina's), the audience encounters various French and German characters, most of whom are peasants and workers, and finds out how the war impacted their lives.

A Very Long Engagement has two distinctions. First, one of the five condemned men, played by Denis Lavant, is a socialist welder. Very few films have represented any working-class individuals -- even minor characters -- as socialists. Films, as well as other forms of fiction, tend to portray socialists as middle-class intellectuals and workers as indifferent to politics -- the tendency that not only erases working-class socialists from history but also harbors a condescending view of workers' intellectual capacity. A Very Long Engagement is an interesting partial exception (partial in so far as the socialist welder is represented as unable to reach his fellow workers except by joining them symbolically through an act of individual refusal). Here's an excerpt from Sébastien Japrisot's book of the same title on which the film is based -- it says a little more about the welder than the film:
Before the nightmare he'd been a corporal, because they'd needed one and the fellows in his platoon had chosen him, but he hated military ranks. He was certain that one day all men, including welders, would be free and equal among themselves. He was a welder in Bagneux, near Paris, with a wife, two daughters, and marvelous phrases in his head, phrases learned by heart, that spoke of the workingman throughout the world, that said. . . . For more than thirty years he'd known perfectly well what they said, and his father, who'd so often told him about the Paris Commune, had known this, too.

It was in their blood. His father had had it from his father, and had passed it on to his son, who had always known that the poor manufacture the engines of their own destruction, but it's the rich who sell them. He'd tried to talk about this in the billets, in the barns, in the village cafés, when the proprietress lights the kerosene lamps and the policeman pleads with you to go home, you're all good folks, so let's be reasonable now, it's time to go home. He wasn't a good speaker, he didn't explain things well. And they lived in such destitution, these poor people, and the light in their eyes was so dimmed by alcohol, the boon companion of poverty, that he'd felt even more helpless to reach them.

A few days before Christmas, as he was going up the line, he'd heard a rumor about what some soldiers had done. So he'd loaded his gun and shot himself in the left hand, quickly, without looking, without giving himself time to think about it, simply to be with them. In that classroom where they'd sentenced him, there had been twenty-eight men who'd all done the same thing. He was glad, yes, glad and almost proud that there had been twenty-eight of them. Even if he would never live to see it, since the sun was setting for the last time, he knew that a day would come when the French, the Germans, the Russians -- "and even the clergy" -- would refuse to fight, ever again, for anything. Well, that's what he believed. He had those very pale blue eyes flecked with tiny red dots that welders sometimes have. (Sébastien Japrisot, A Very Long Engagement, trans. Linda Coverdale, NY: Plume, 1993 [originally published in France in 1991])
The second distinction, the more extraordinary, is that A Very Long Engagement shows a French soldier killing a French officer during an offensive. The soldier, Benoît Notre-Dame (played by Clovis Cornillac), sees the officer kicking the bodies of dead French soldiers whom the officer curses as incompetent cowards, and, outraged, he suffocates the officer in the mud. Nobody sees his act (except the audience), so he does not get charged with murder. And, among the five condemned men, he is the most resourceful survivor, saving Manech's life and escaping himself. What other film has shown a soldier kill a superior and get away with it?

French soldiers' rebellious refusal to continue fighting the futile war as well as an understanding between French and German soldiers hinted at in A Very Long Engagement is rooted in history, except that French soldiers in the real world became eventually more collectively revolutionary than individual refusers in the fiction.

A Very Long Engagement begins with the sentencing of the aforementioned five soldiers in January 1917, as they are marched down a trench to Bingo Crépuscule. That's mere four months before mutinies in the French Army that began on May 27, 1917, involving as many as 30,000 soldiers:
Official archives give the figures of 3,427 soldiers convicted of offences relating to the mutinies, some 554 receiving death sentences of which 49 were executed.65 However, these figures have been contested by historians of the mutinies.
. . . executions involved in the suppression of revolt could be covered up by listing the death under some category other than execution, such as 'died of wounds' or 'killed in an accident.'66. . . .
(Peter Edwards, "'Mort pour la France': Conflict and Commemoration in France after the First World War," University of Sussex Journal of Contemporary History 1, 2000, p. 8)
That was not the only rank-and-file rebellion during World War 1. Shortly after the war began, German, British, French, and other soldiers organized a Christmas truce in December 1914 (see, for instance, "The Christmas Truce," BBC, November 3, 1999; and Harvey Thompson, "War, Football and the 1914 Christmas Truce,", July 17, 2003). By 1917, the war further radicalized many more soldiers, sparking mutinies in the Russian, French, German, British, Italian, and other forces in 1917-1919. Of course, the Russian Revolution itself could not have happened without mutinous Russian soldiers who refused orders to crush strikers and protesters and deserted from the front.

A Very Long Engagement, whose whimsically romantic plot and enchanting visual set pieces at times overwhelm its political substance, is nevertheless one of the few films in which mutinous soldiers of World War 1 make their ghostly presence felt -- the presence that some viewers of the film may be led to discover in historical documents neglected by national histories.

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