Set in 1919/20, just after World War I, a young French girl, Mathilde (played by Audrey Tatou), receives the news that her fiance, Manech, was executed during the war. He, along with four other men accused of self-mutilation (they all injured their hands in various ways, some of them obviously hoping to be sent home because of it), were sentenced to death by being thrown up into the no man’s land area between the French and German front lines.
However, despite the official news, Mathilde believes that he is alive. Because, as the film says, “if Manech was dead, Mathilde would know”. Thus begins what is a highly convoluted film that mainly consists of Mathilde tracking down everyone who was anywhere near the trenches that night, and findining out what really happened to Manech. The plot is complex to begin with, when you combine that with the fact that as an Australian, I recognise very few of the actors (though there are surprising faces that show up, like Jodie Foster) and the film is in French with subtitles, it can actually be quite difficult to keep on top of things.
However, it all becomes clear in the end, and I won’t tell you what happens.
The film itself is another film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and if you’ve seen any of his films (the first one I ever saw was The City of Lost Children, but his most famous one would be Amelie), you’ll know that his films live in a kind of quirky fantasy-land where every face is strange and exotic (almost every extra is picked because of their distinctive looks), and everything looks highly stylised. I think the most unusual thing about this film is that it doesn’t actually require this approach to tell the story. Whereas Amelie needed a quirky film-making style to tell a quirky story, this film could actually have been made by a regular film-maker using fairly ordinary story-telling conventions. It would, however, have been a typical war film, as opposed to this quite distinctive arthouse offering.
Overall, I found myself fairly sucked in by the visuals, and I can appreciate the cleverness of the film-making. There are sequences in this film that are absolutely stunning set pieces.
But, in the end, I was let down by the same thing that disappointed me about Amelie – this insistence that the heart of romance is sex. Even American romantic films will have more going for them than just sex. In the same way, that Amelie built up a madcap romantic pursuit as Amelie pursued her man around Paris, when they finally did meet up, they just wordlessly started making out, the camera moved away, and that was that.
It’s the same in this film. In the main relationship between Mathilde and Manech (and, in fact, most of the romantic relationships in the film), apart from a few flashbacks when they were children, I don’t really see much of what they liked about each other apart from the sex. Is this all that drives the French idea of romance? I have no idea, but it seems pretty shallow to me.
3 out of 5