ART DECEMBER 20, 2004
Twenty-five hundred years ago, in Agamemnon, a Greek soldier just returned from the Trojan War described what it was like to be in that siege:
We had to camp Close by the enemy's
wall, in the wet
Soaked with the dew and
the mist, ill from the
damp clothes, our hair
Matted like savages.
Aeschylus might have been writing about the trench warfare of World War I. His lines depict the plight of the French troops in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT, except that Aeschylus had not encountered artillery and machine guns. Jeunet's film--the large portions of it that are set in the trenches and in the too precisely named no-man'sland--ranks with Paths of Glory and Gallipoli in its re-creation of trench warfare, the animal existence between battles and the abattoir of the battles themselves.
At the start, in 1917, five French soldiers have been sentenced to death for various offenses. (A clich of war films, the crucifix seen against a background of destruction, gets a sharp variation in Jeunet's opening shot.) We follow the five as they slosh through a trench to the officer who will sentence them. The sentence? They are to go over the top and attack the Germans on their own.
That sentence itself is a comment on what the troops are ordinarily commanded to do. What the five undergo and what others in later attacks undergo are part of a collage of faces in the mud and bayonets in the guts and noise that almost seems to enwrap them. Trench warfare becomes a homicidal game in which two teams face each other, taking turns at trying to hold the playing field. Jeunet, who wrote the screenplay with Guillaume Laurant, emphasizes the madness by, in the course of his story, returning to this battleground after the war. Now it does look like a weird playing field after the game--except that a farmer is beginning to turn the scarred ground.
Over the whole film lies a faint sepia tone, as if to place it in the past, and all of it is excellently made. But those war sequences--well, it would be hard to exaggerate the shock and the compassion with which Jeunet and his cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, have viewed them. Faces, wetness, holes that are havens, a German biplane with a crew of two (the rear man firing a machine gun backward because inventors hadn't yet learned how to fire through the propeller): these are only a few of the details worked into something more than realism. These war sequences are a blood-freezing memorial.
But--glum antithesis--Jeunet's film is a hybrid. The war is the steely filament on which a romance is hung. One of the condemned soldiers, Manech, has a fiance named Mathilde. When she gets word of his sentence, she refuses to believe that he has been killed. Strengthened by the inner conviction that is essential to this sort of romance, she pursues every possible clue in order to find Manech. Add that Mathilde limps as a result of polio and the heart-tugs are even more pronounced. True, Jeunet handles this romance with finesse. Like all the best directors, he knows not only how to move his camera but how to move his actors interestingly within a shot. As Mathilde wends her wistful way, the cast becomes gigantic, and on each of the many characters Jeunet tries to stamp individuality. (There is a glimpse of Jodie Foster in a small role.) But this tale of Mathilde's search is a sentimentality dangling on the war's bleakness.
Matters are certainly not helped by Audrey Tautou, who plays Mathilde. Jeunet made the capricious Amlie with her, an attempt to present her as another Audrey Hepburn. This new film tries to transform her into someone like Lillian Gish in The White Sister or Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven. No. Tautou is a mobile mannequin, quite dull. But what a loss it would be if the war scenes--a substantial part of the picture--were disregarded. Mathilde's story is well enough handled by Jeunet to be endurable, and the rest of the film is a reward.
THE SPANISH DIRECTOR Pedro Almodvar, born in 1951, has reached the point in his career where he can no longer be considered an enfant terrible and, according to some, deserves retrospective celebration. The immediate cause is BAD EDUCATION.
If there is such a thing as a born film-maker, Almodvar surely is one. This was clear in his earliest films to be seen here, such as What Have I Done to Deserve This? and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Since then, there has never been in his plentiful output a waver in control; and always there has been a sense that he was using film for his purposes, not merely making a picture. What has changed along the way is that, perforce, he is no longer an enfant and has become in pertinent ways less terrible.
In his first decade or so, Almodvar slashed open the hypocritical guises of Spanish conventions, including some in religion, as if to make up for all the fakeries that had burdened thought and action under Franco. But, though no one would have expected or wanted him to continue always in the same vein, questions grew about his latter-day work. In place of the ruthless ridicule and scornful comedy of the early films, he began to invent intricate plots, sometimes so bizarre that they almost became sarcasm about plotting. Regarding All About My Mother, for instance, a summary of the story, which will not be attempted here, would sound like a satire of the story.
Bad Education suffers the same way. Basically it is about two young men, one a film director and the other an actor, who were schoolmates in a parochial school and who meet again professionally. In flashback we see their homoerotic attachment at school and their molestation by a priest. Yet to attack the censors of homoeroticism and the priestly abuse of boys is now not enough material for Almodvar, as once it might have been. Now he has to set this account, told in the two time-planes of past and present, in a Pirandellian puzzle about reality. The actor has written a story about the pair's boyhood love, and the director films it; and matters are convoluted so that we have questions about which is the film and which is the actuality underneath it. This rigmarole degenerates into the pretentious.
Yet every scene is adroitly composed, every actor is more than competent. Gael Garca Bernal, the Che Guevara of The Motorcycle Diaries, is buoyant and supple as the actor, who, for plot reasons, is sometimes in drag. Fele Martnez is thoughtful and disturbed as the director, and Llus Homar has depth as an abusive priest--who, by the by, leaves the priesthood and becomes a book editor particularly interested in young writers. Homosexual activities adorn the film and are no more or less welcome than the heterosexual activities in other current films. But Bad Education, like much of Almodvar's recent work, leaves the viewer with the sense of a writing-directing talent concocting complexities. Everything he touches is well-turned, but he now feels compelled to put the pieces together in something other than a lucid design.