04 February 2005

Mathilde by candlelight

Wednesday night I walked downtown to a local venue to see Blue Merle (a hybrid mix of Nickel Creek & Coldplay). It was an amazing show--the place was packed, aside from the fact that it was their third show here in the past month! (I definitely plan on picking up a copy of their new album, Burning in the Sun, once it's out.)

But I also loved sitting at an inconspicuous table in the dim candlelight, finishing Sébastien Japrisot's luminous novel A Very Long Engagement before the show started.

An article in The Independent last month discusses Japrisot's life and work:

The way of the world, in all its hard, tragic and hopeful guises, was to be Sébastien Japrisot's preoccupation throughout a prolific and varied career - one that spanned literary fiction, crime novels, screenplays and translations, right up to his death in March 2003. He held a Graham Greene-like reputation in France: a brilliant talent cocooned in a complicated and volatile personality. However, on this side of the Channel, he has remained relatively obscure to all but Francophiles and cinéastes. [...]

Japrisot's classic follows the endeavours of Mathilde, a young woman on a quest to discover the fate of her fiancé, Manech, who went missing in action in the Great War. Mathilde was crippled in a childhood fall, and her physical strength is replaced with a mental resolve as rigid as a girder. She is a beguiling protagonist. Guillaume Laurent, who adapted the book with Jeunet, notes: "What's so beautiful about A Very Long Engagement is that the heroine's tenacity, strength of will and faith transcend the horrors of war."

It is a good adaptation in that Audrey Tautou nails Mathilde, the still point of its rapidly turning world (I could somehow deal with the fact that she isn't strictly wheelchair-bound). I identified so completely with her character that it would've been difficult to dislike the film. Jeunet's interpretation of the story is very him (with all that that implies)--it was interesting to see the pieces of information that he withheld in order to make it a tighter mystery. Also, to enhance the dramatic tension, he intentionally keeps Mathilde hoping to find Manech alive. In the novel, this is much cloudier, many more years pass, and it almost seems as if Mathilde's hope is in finding out how he died...which somehow effortlessly co-exists with her aim of finding him (don't worry--this doesn't give anything away one way or another).

That said, I wish I had read the book first, and especially wish that I could read French! (It's Un long dimanche de fiancailles for your list, Ms. Croc.) But this is a case where both novel and film complement each other. Mathilde's indestructible resolve reminded me of Jane Eyre--a very different character, but the unswerving fidelity to what she holds true is very similar.

A few favorite lines:

She is mistaken. Time passes, as That Man said, and life is strong enough to carry us on its back.

"Of course, Matti, you will rebel against an action that deprived you of hope..."

Her father's reply is just what she expected: he knows her--or her heart, at least--better than anyone, and he knows perfectly well that if she has that heart set on an idea, and someone else doesn't like it, that someone else is simply out of luck.

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