A Very Long Engagement

Despite living in Los Angeles, I rarely attend its many test screenings or previews; I generally have enough film openings, retrospectives, and single-day screenings at the handful of art theatres around town to keep me occupied.

But last night I was invited to a showing of the new Jean-Pierre Jeunet film, A Very Long Engagement, which doesn’t even open in Paris until late-October. I went with modest expectations. I discovered Delicatessen (1991) on video in college and at the time was charmed by its vibrant eccentricity and dark humor, and while I subsequently appreciated The City of Lost Children (1995) on similar grounds, disastrous reviews encouraged me to skip Alien: Resurrection (1997) and Jeunet’s international sensation AmÈlie (2001) struck me as more frantic and desparate than romantic or inspiring.

My invitation simply stipulated that I couldn’t be a member of the media or an employee of the entertainment industry, so I accepted, braving Los Angeles rush-hour traffic–one of the world’s most life-threatening environments–in order to race to the Hollywood theatre from my workplace in Pasadena.

After paying for parking in the theatre’s highrise garage, I then joined the “special screening” line that was forming outside the multiplex. After waiting for some time, I was handed a clipboard with a form to fill out, which suddenly stipulated a whole series of qualifications before I would be allowed to enter, asking whether or not I was a paid or unpaid, full-time or part-time, writer in print or on the web, or if I ever wrote about the films I see on the Internet in any way. At this point, I had sacrificed a significant portion of my evening and would continue to do so if I had to drive back home through congested traffic, so I simply checked “no” everywhere, telling myself I wouldn’t write about the film in depth; after having seen the movie, however, I now realize I have little to say about it anyway.

But the screening event was a unique experience. In fact, it was downright scary. After a stoic person walked down the line and collected our clipboards and pencils, carefully appraising our answers, she then handed me a ticket stub and we were ushered into the theatre. Once inside, we traded our stubs for real movie tickets and had our parking validation stamped. We were then led single file to an auditorium where we suddenly found ourselves in what resembled some strange space-time continuum that merged Hollywood premieres and LAX anti-terrorism rituals: surrounded by hefty men in dark suits with stern faces, guests with bags or purses were ordered to spill their contents onto a table and be searched. While security occupied our attention, other employees came up behind us and demanded to see our tickets. As each guest, one by one, was allowed to pass beyond the table, more personnel came forward with handheld metal detectors and ordered us to stand spread-eagled as they passed their gleaming, beeping wands over our bodies. “Do you have any cameras or recording devices?” they asked. “No,” I stammered. Giving me an approving nod, a security officer pointed to the auditorium entrance.

Once inside, there were few remaining seats as a large portion of them in the center of the room had been cordoned off. I chanced upon an empty spot and found myself sitting somewhere between a woman a row behind me and her date in the row in front of me, both of them loudly complaining about their seating arrangement. About 20 minutes later, a presenter finally entered the auditorium and reminded us that it was against the law to film the screen in any way and assured us they “would be monitoring the audience throughout the screening” in order to enforce it. The presenter added that we should remain seated after the film because they had something else they wanted us to fill out; this turned out to be a lengthy, two-page, typed appraisal form asking us to rate various aspects of the film and provide comments regarding our favorite and least favorite scenes.

What was my response? In a nutshell, I found the film pretty annoying, full of constantly attention-seeking camera techniques and leering closeups and indulgent weirdness that seemed designed to distract the viewer from what is essentially an extremely conventional love story about a country woman (AmÈlie‘s Audrey Tautou) trying to find her lover, a soldier who may or may not have been executed, shortly after WWI. The battle scenes are a mixture of absurd cinematic stylization and gruesome violence tinged with black humor, a postmodern Saving Private Ryan (the camera follows a hand grenade being thrown into the air as it hits a passing airplane that machine guns the soldier who threw the bomb–all in one shot!), and what little human qualities the film possesses that aren’t drowned in Jeunet’s typical caricatures and funny faces are exaggerated into easily-chewable melodrama. Tautou, playing a woman with a severe limp, runs through glowing fields in order to catch one last glimpse of her lover and sits forlornly on a rocky beach playing single notes on a baritone–the only instrument, the narrator informs us, that can provide the sound of grief.

The truth is, devoted fans of Jeunet’s cartoon gimmickry and gag-style narration or Tautou’s impish grins may very well feel this is the film of the year, but for myself, I’ll take more sensitive observations of genuine human drama over this kind of absurdist posturing any day.

Mostly, I’m just glad I made it through the screening without being detained or thrown in jail for some reason or another. I can safely say the experience significantly squelched any desire I may have had for attending L.A. previews for some time to come.