Grand Illusions

Directors with epic ambitions, and films that live up to them — almost.

click to enlarge READY FOR TAKEOFF: The Aviator may not - be Scorsese's very best, but it may well land him an - Oscar. - ANDREW COOPER/MIRAMAX FILMS
READY FOR TAKEOFF: The Aviator may not be Scorsese's very best, but it may well land him an Oscar.

For some lucky filmmakers, like Jean-Pierre Jeunet, that Great Divide between art and entertainment barely exists. From Delicatessen to City of Lost Children, Jeunet has displayed an uncanny ability to wax poetic and give us suckers what we want, all in the same breath. In Amelie, a fairy-tale trifle gilded with something approaching genius, Jeunet perfected the formula and the result looked a lot like the final word on the subject.

But now Jeunet is back with A Very Long Engagement, and it looks like the filmmaker is up to his old tricks again. They're still quite good tricks — most of them, anyway, even though we've seen them before — and if Jeunet's new film doesn't quite scale the same heights as Amélie, the movie abounds with enough imagination and pure emotion to keep the natives from getting too restless.

Like all of Jeunet's films, A Very Long Engagement is a love story, but it's also a war movie, directly descended from hard-hitting humanist classics like All's Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory. And like those films, Engagement distills the horrors of World War I by focusing its effect on specific individuals, rather than bludgeoning us with monumental battle after battle. It's an epic, but one mostly composed of small, human pieces.

Movie-mad Jeunet opens his new film with an old-fashioned iris shot, referencing the whole of cinema before introducing us to a handful of ordinary, salt-of-the-earth types recruited to join the French army. This being a Jeunet film, the scene's lyricism soon turns terrifying and then ghoulishly funny, as we watch the various creative and awful ways the new recruits find to mutilate themselves in order to avoid getting sent to the front. Some of these soldiers succeed in getting their discharges, but most wind up in the thick of battle, dead, or simply never heard from again.

One of those missing is Manech, the great love of Mathilde (Audrey Tautou), a simple provincial lass who spends virtually every one of A Very Long Engagement's 134 minutes searching for her lost soulmate. She's nothing if not dedicated — some might say obsessive — a quality that contributes to the impression that what we've got here is essentially another Amélie, albeit with a less interesting sense of humor and a limp. Like Amélie, Mathilde devotes herself to finding true love, although she takes a considerably less innovative approach by hiring private detectives, interviewing possible leads and carving her lover's initials into a variety of surfaces.

Mathilde's investigation yields some interesting results, though. In the course of quizzing various witnesses as to Manech's whereabouts, conflicting versions of reality emerge, weaving a richly confounding, Rashomon-like tapestry of the truth. The film becomes a maze of loose ends and detours, some satisfying and some not so, but all rendered in typically stunning visual form by Jeunet.

Even the most inventive visuals can't completely redeem an overly earth-bound script, though, and the later sections of Long Engagement occasionally forget that this director's movies are best when they're allowed to fly. There are too many scenes of people sitting in rooms dutifully explaining the plot for us, too few of the spontaneous, eccentric flourishes that make Jeunet's films such delights (and turned Amélie into an international phenomenon).

Ultimately, this is a film to be admired and appreciated, not to be ravished by. After a success like that of Amélie, it's natural for a filmmaker to want to do something of a scale and grandness commensurate with his newfound status. With A Very Long Engagement, Jeunet seems to have created the epic he felt was demanded of him, but the filmmaker didn't quite give us the movie either he or we deserve.

Another epic production, and one with an eye fixed firmly on Oscar, Martin Scorsese's The Aviator is a lavish period piece in the style of the monumental Hollywood classics this director was weaned on. For those who may not know, this is Scorsese's biopic about famous, obscenely rich Howard Hughes, businessman, adventurer, inventor, visionary, playboy, recluse and raving nut-job. For all of these reasons and more, Hughes might just be the quintessential American.

The Aviator crams an awful lot of history into its nearly three-hour running time, but the core of the movie eyeballs the obsessive personality that would allow Hughes to become a master of the world and then eventually transform him into a brittle paranoiac, paralyzed by everything he felt was beyond his control. Scorsese does an excellent job detailing the strange mix of wild eccentricities, gambler's passion and buttoned-up business acumen that was Hughes. And while Leonardo DiCaprio doesn't quite have the gravitas to pull off this sort of role, you do get used to him after the first half hour or so.

The film begins in the 1920s with Hughes' flirtation with Hollywood, where he applies the same obsessive attention to Jane Russell's décolletage and the battle scenes in Hell's Angels as he does to taking over TWA. We then segue into his affairs with the likes of Katherine Hepburn (an uncanny impersonation by Cate Blanchette) and Ava Gardner (a lightweight Kate Beckinsale), his outrageous financial triumphs, his steady surrender to his delusions.

The Aviator covers a lot of other ground, too, and the question becomes how could one film do justice to this life. The answer, of course, is that it can't. But in a season filled with biopics of all stripes, from the good (Ray, Kinsey) to the bad (Beyond the Sea) to the ugly (Alexander), Scorsese has given us a big, muscular epic that, while not ranking with his very best work, is at least two films in one. One movie depicts a larger-than-life, real-world saga, the other an interior drama unfolding in a troubled mind, and both are good enough to ensure that one of those nice, shiny statues will soon be residing on the director's mantelpiece.

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