A Very Long Engagement

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I’ve spent a very pleasant afternoon watching A Very Long Engagement again.  What is special about this film is that it includes some of the standard WW1 tropes that in other works have become  clichés – (military executions, amnesia,  swapping of identity discs) and reimagines them  in the context of romance. By which  mean not so much the golden tones and the lush score  as the narrative brio, and the sense of strangeness and passion. Characters like the Corsican murderess and the man with the nutcracker hand, the use of secret messages and motifs – the red glove, the German boots.

I know I shouldn’t keep on knocking Pat Barker, but it’s interesting to compare the use of the war in this film with its representation in Life Class.  In both works the War is a site of horror, but for Barker, this is just an intensification of the horror of ordinary life. Pre-war existence is grim; war makes it grimmer, and the best anyone can hope for is maybe to survive to a time that is slightly less grim.

In this film the horror is what characters struggle against, each in their own way. Like Barker, the film uses the self-inflicted wound as a key symbol. Whereas in Barker it is the sign of utter despair, in this film it is seen as a sign of life, part of the attempt to escape. Even no-man’s-land is a place where a man can stop to carve his girlfriend’s initials on a tree, and turns out to have life-saving trapdoors through which a man can escape. So there is always hope.

Barker fans would probably say that her feelbad books are truer to life than feelgood movies. Truth to life is not the only criterion, though. This film has a narrative wit that convinces, as it flicks from scene to scene, and often takes us high for a shot that is an overview. We are never allowed to stay long in one narrative perspective. The cinematic style enacts the film’s message that there’s more to life than we think.

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