Monday, November 22, 2004

Romancing the War

While in DC last weekend, I had a chance to catch a preview of a new french film, Un long dimanche de fiancailles. The film, the title of which translates to A Very Long Engagement, chronicles Mathilde's quest to find her fiance who was lost and presumed dead in The Great War.

On Sunday, the New York Times ran an interesting film analysis and commentary of sorts: The Girl He Left Behind Gets a Movie of Her Own. The article's title alone fairly well captures a main reason I loved this film. It's about the girl. It's a war movie about the girl. The girl - girls, really - left behind. I'll admit now, after denying it for quite sometime (10 points to S. Angel), that things are more meaningful or provide more of a role model if the main character is similar to the reader or audience. I have to be honest: I read the Choose Your Own Adventures with the girls in the illustrations. I liked Nancy Drew, not the Hardy Boys. And no, I don't like war movies about only men. Well, I like some of them (especially the 1927 Academy Award winning Wings, oops that has a girl too). But for the most part, war films celebrate the linear nature of war in all its grand male-ness. Films that dare discuss or focus on the homefront, however, must confront that other half of the population.

That the film focuses on women, however, isn't the only thing that sets it apart. It's also a World War I movie - a war most of my generation understands solely through compulsory high school All Quiet on the Western Front term papers. There's little about World War I that doesn't turn your stomache. Millions of young men waited in muddy holes. Occasionally, they would run up over the top of their foxholes attempting to inch the line forward. Of course, doing so, put them directly in the line of enemy fire. Basically, from what I recall, each side took turns getting slaughtered until they called it quits on what we now celebrate as Veteran's Day.

The film captures the uselessness of WWI beautifully and heart-wrenchingly. As the NYT article describes it, "the trenches were where the romance of war went to die." A historical reality echoed in the film's narrative. WWI lessons, as imparted in literature and film, tie directly into current conflicts. From the article:

The antiwar argument practically makes itself, and part of that argument, powerfully stated in Lewis Milestone's famous 1929 film "All Quiet on the Western Front," is that indefensible wars are insidiously enabled by ignorance on the home front, by the dreams of vicarious glory dreamed by those who sleep in their own beds, far from the hellish reality of the battlefield. It's more or less unanimous, too, that the First World War signaled the beginning of a profound skepticism about the benevolence of states and the nobility of war: the Great War was, in the opinion of those lucky enough to survive it, a great con.
WWII mythology, captured in so many prominent, recent films and series, focuses less on the hopeless horror that permeates WWI narratives. Instead, it plays up the noble ends of the conflict - the bands of brotherhood, the sacrifices upon the alter of freedom. Alternately, post-Vietnam era films center on cynacism and confusion - though, I'd argue, since the 1991 Gulf War, they tend still to find a way to uplift the action. The article compares European war narratives with post-Vietnam Amerian war movies:
But for the French, who were fighting on their own soil, the girls left behind must have seemed tantalizingly close, less purely abstract than a G.I.'s sweetheart might seem to him after a few confusing months in Vietnam or the Sunni Triangle. The American experience of modern war has been primarily elsewhere; the chipper anthem of the relatively brief American involvement in the Great War was "Over
Our war movies are about thrusting forward into hostile territory - landing on a beach, taking a hill, bombing behind enemy lines - rather than about digging in and defending our own.

The different mind sets generate a different dramatic emphasis in the depiction of combat. In European films about the First World War, the narrative almost always centers on the frustrations of stasis . . . .

And since Vietnam, practically all our combat narratives have concentrated on the near-hallucinatory sense of dislocation that comes from moving forward blindly in a dark jungle, because there's no place else to go and nothing, in any case, will look like home. . . .

Since Vietnam, too, movie audiences demand a far more graphic portrayal of violence; even in pictures about the Second World War, whose necessity was questionable, we expect to see gushing blood, blown-off limbs, exposed viscera - all the gross physical insults that movies made during that war discreetly protected us from.

This enormous increase in sensory detail in the war films of the post-Vietnam era helps reinforce the widespread cynicism about war that took root in Europe in the second decade of the 20th century and in America in the late 1960's: a saner attitude, on the whole, than the romanticized notions of battlefield glory that prevailed before the slaughter in the trenches. The downside of the orgiastic vividness of the combat violence in movies like "Saving Private Ryan" and "Black Hawk Down" is that it frequently seems to be about nothing but itself, to exclude any possibility of meaning in the terrible events. Mr. Jeunet, searching for a sort of intensity that doesn't altogether kill hope, settles on a magic-realist style for his battle scenes: a once-upon-a-time tone that suggests that some moral might actually emerge from this hell.
A Very Long Engagement succeeds because it manages to pull somekind of human hope out of a hopeless war. The film's basic truth, of course, is that all war is hell - hopeless, meaningless, linearly aimed at death. Yet, it doesn't relax into this truth - nor does it apply it beyond the battlefield. As the NYT frames it, Engagement doesn't dwell in the trenches. Credit the circular nature of a female narrative (literarily speaking, though, literally in this case as well) which mandates the departure from the kind of war narrative we're used to (as does the non-American experience).

On a less academic note, the movie itself is finely made - beautifully acted, filmed, and scored. I have never seen Amelie, but this film also stars Audrey Tautou and both were directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. From what I understand, the magic realism that echoes in Engagement is one of the director's hallmarks. It works well here. I was going to link to the trailer, but having watched it, I'm going to suggest you just trust my recommendation and go check out the film, which is in limited release starting November 26. About the only worthwhile part of the trailer are the titles describing the movie as about "The Beauty of Hope and the Absurdity of War" (wonder how long until there's a Presidential decree that anyone calling war absurd is unpatriotic - and anyone attending a FRENCH film on the absurdity of war shall be deported). The rest of the trailer has to carefully avoid letting interested people know the whole thing is in French. It just isn't the best advertisement for the film. Go check it out for yourselves. You'll like it.

By the way, just because I find these types of differences interesting, the poster above seems to be for the American release. The French poster is below. I'm guess Tautou's more of a marquee name in France - while here she's just That Pretty Girl Who Was In That Other French Movie. Our poster, however, implies sex. God bless America.

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