From the first harrowing crane shot snaking through a muddy World War I trench, A Very Long Engagement plunges the viewer into an epic, color-charged vision of battle-torn France. Based on the bestselling novel by Sébastien Japrisot, this operatic motion picture tells the story of a young woman’s relentless investigation into the death of her fiancé, who was condemned by a military tribunal and sent out to die with four other soldiers in the bleak “no man’s land” between the French and German trenches. Denying all evidence to the contrary, Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) stubbornly refuses to believe that her beloved is dead, and enlists the services of a detective to find out all she can about the incident and those involved.
The resulting, far-flung investigation takes us back and forth in time: scenes at Mathilde’s home on the coast of Brittany are set in 1920, but flashbacks transport us to the battlefield three years earlier and to other locations throughout France. In addition to bloody battles, the story’s ambitious sweep includes scenes set in rural Corsica, a series of bordellos, Montmartre, train stations, a field hospital and a military cemetery. The narrative involves a cast of colorful characters, including the avuncular detective, Mathilde’s homespun aunt and uncle, a cowardly pimp, a failed revolutionary, a loyal friend and a murderous prostitute. In order to delineate the many strands of this dense detective story, the screen occasionally splits into two or more images that convey the exchange of letters and phone calls or remind viewers of important plot points.
Despite its scale, A Very Long Engagement is ultimately a love story driven by a woman’s unwavering faith. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, AFC place this simple tale in a world that is more of a personal vision than a historical reenactment. From the very start, Delbonnel’s richly colored images transport the viewer past realism and into what could be called cinematic impressionism. As the film reaches its emotional conclusion, the viewer is left with an unforgettable patchwork of multi-hued memories.
Jeunet and Delbonnel’s last collaboration, Amélie, garnered five Academy Award nominations, including one for Delbonnel’s cinematography. The cameraman also earned an ASC Award nomination for his work on the film. A Very Long Engagement certainly attempts to capitalize on this success; the mammoth project involved almost seven months of shooting, dozens of locations and a budget of approximately 45 million Euros. Warner Bros. demonstrated its faith in the project by agreeing to co-produce the film in French and by giving Jeunet complete artistic freedom, including final cut. Delbonnel says the design of the film’s cinematography was aided by Jeunet’s propensity for meticulous preparation. Prior to shooting, the duo worked out and agreed upon a series of guiding principles that would dictate their use of lenses, lighting and color.
In his own approach to cinematography, Delbonnel seeks to limit the variables. On A Very Long Engagement, he used only two negatives, Kodak Vision 200T 5274 and Vision2 500T 5218; he employed the latter only when he didn’t have enough light to use the 74. He is rigorous about exposure, checking the calibration of his three light meters with his gaffer every morning. He relies upon incident readings, only using a spot meter if he’s dealing with a bluescreen shoot or some other specialized application. “I’m not extremely technical,” he confesses. “I do exposure tests, but from there I don’t move; I stay within the results of my tests. I know that I have three stops above and three stops below, and I play within that range unless I want the image to be burned out, when I’ll go five stops over, or if I want to the image to go black, when I’ll go six or seven stops under. I’ve always used Kodak stocks, including their print stocks, because I know them by heart, and they correspond to my way of working. I lock things in early on so that I can focus on lighting and not worry about technique.”
For Delbonnel, the release-print stock is an integral part of his cinematographic design. “Everything is linked, and on this show I worked with Vision Premier  in mind from the start,” he says, adding that he and Jeunet had to fight for that print stock because it’s more expensive.
Although Jeunet gives Delbonnel considerable freedom in the lighting of a sequence, the director is adamant about one aspect of his films. “Jean-Pierre wants to see as much as possible in the frame,” says Delbonnel. “One of his guiding principles is to show everything; he doesn’t like complete darkness, and there is almost none in the film. An example is a sequence set in a small shed where the condemned soldiers eat at night. I wanted to play it almost abstract, with just the faces visible, but Jean-Pierre wanted to show a little of the background. To get the feeling he wanted, I lowered the contrast a bit so that we still had a sense of the space. In this film, we went further toward darkness than we had before; we even did a few shots in silhouette, where Jean-Pierre agreed to let things go dark.”
Another signature trait of Jeunet’s work is his systematic use of wide-angle lenses, often placed very close to the actors. Short focal lengths yield a more exaggerated perspective and greater depth of field than longer lenses. For the viewer, the increased perspective heightens the three-dimensional quality of camera moves, while the depth of field keeps more in focus within the frame.
For Very Long Engagement, which was shot in Super 35mm 2.35:1, Delbonnel used Arricam Studios and Lites and an Aaton 35-III, all outfitted with Cooke S4 lenses. He used no diffusion on the lens, as he prefers to diffuse with lighting. He notes that the Cookes also naturally soften the image. “For this film, I felt that the Cookes corresponded to my lighting, and the brand also offers a great range of short focal lengths: there are eight lenses between 14mm and 35mm. Working with Jean-Pierre, we could have returned all the lenses above 32mm to Technovision if they had rented to us by the lens, we could have made some savings!”