You'd rather be on the Internet than watching the Super Bowl. I know.

*Nothing very comics-related today. I did get around to seeing “A Very Long Engagement” by acclaimed “Alien Resurrection” director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and it occupies pretty much the same space as “Hero” in my mind, in that it’s a lovingly crafted and technically sound film that’s nonetheless decidedly irritating, though to a lesser extent than “Hero”.

“A Very Long Engagement” is explicitly about telling stories. Virtually every scene in the entire film is structured as something that’s being told to one character by another. In addition, an omniscient narrator pops in every so often to fill us in on the back-stories of much of the large cast, at least when it’d be a little too clumsy to shove such information in as part of the character interactions proper. As a result, Jeunet and his production team take this as an open invitation to coat everything in a lavish storybook sheen, tons of sepia and golden hour sunlight drenching the countryside of post-WWI France. Did I mention it’s a period piece? Because that also allows for lovely costumes and brief homage to everything from newsreels to vintage porno. It’s an art-direction wonderland out there, but that’s really the problem, I think.

The plot, and it’s a complicated one, involves five French soldiers out in the trenches in the dog days of the war, all of who’ve been accused (mostly correctly) of self-mutilation to escape the front. The punishment is death, and all five are ordered into no man’s land without weapons. One of them is the pretty but utterly blank 19 year-old Manech (the sort of character that’ll drive others onto an epic quest for love solely by virtue of, well, being the male romantic lead rather than displaying anything interesting on his own), who can still feel the heartbeat of his beloved fiancée Mathilde in his hand from the first time they made love, and the polio-stricken Mathilde can still sense his lifeline upon her heart, and refuses to believe that he has died. Audrey Tautou handles herself fairly well in the part, retaining a bit of the perkiness that made her an international semi-star, but retaining a decisive amount of sadness about her inquiry, a journey that mostly takes her on a few trips away from home, although the information she’s exposed to sends the film whirling through time, going over the same events from multiple perspectives, overlapping character experiences, and generally providing a crystalline view of The War and its consequences. Did I mention there’s a killer on the loose? Yes, there’s even some fantastical, operatic, damn near giallo-style murder sequences, one with the killer literally dissolving away into the shadows.

It’s a convoluted story, and Jeunet tries his hardest to hold the audience’s hand throughout, even breaking out some double exposures to visually review scenes that characters are talking about; I got the feeling that the source novel probably didn’t loan itself very smoothly to cinema adaptation, but the work here is intelligent at least. Plus, the stories-within-stories structure (with the film itself providing the primary level of storytelling) naturally allows for all sorts of visual flourish, although that’s one of the big problems for me. The entire point of the film is plainly that The War has wiped out so much of the hope of France, that the act of fighting it has reduced good men to desperation, and that the pain and suffering continues years after the fighting itself stops. Pretty much every vignette, every scenario in the film is tied to the battle, and everyone suffers mightily from it, with deaths still continuing (and not just through those murders). Except, the war we see might have been hell for the boys of France, but it’s fucking Paradise for an enthusiastic production design team.

The battle is set in cool shades of blue and black, wood and sandbags jutting artfully against the gloomy skies. Crisp, snapping explosions light the night. Soldiers boldly toss grenades into the air to blast open low-flying German aircraft. At one point, the magic of cgi allows one soldier to literally fly above an explosion, much as Daffy Duck would, as others fight on the ground twisting around a bit as they’re shot, dollops of blood. Half of a corpse is nailed to a cross, in a flawless photographic composition. A hospital bombing features a blood-pumping race to the exit (WILL THEY MAKE IT IN TIME?!?!) as we get a goddamned cutaway to the interior mechanics of a bomb, merrily clicking away to oblivion, and then! Majestic, gorgeous swirls of cherry flame! It’s not quite the ‘massacre at Pearl Harbor as X-Box extravaganza’ motif of that beloved Michael Bay production, but it’s pretty fucking close.

And. I don’t know. Really this might not bother a lot of the audience. But this sort of stuff annoys me to no end. The entire point of the film is how The War to End Them All is such an awful, crushing tragedy, but it’s given the same buffing and spackle as the rest of the film. Sure, it’s a ‘DARK!’ candy coating, but it still feels to me like Mr. Jeunet is having his cake and eating it too, with beauty and adrenaline but Bad beauty and adrenaline. I’m not saying that outright fantasy can’t be effectively used in war scenes, and lord knows I enjoy bloody action in my escapism. But if your entire film is centered around the idea of war as unrelenting, devouring hell, then maybe it’s not such an awesome idea to dip the carnage in the same glaze as the picturesque market scenes or the nostalgic country homes.

I do understand the film in an intellectual sense; I get what it’s driving towards. And maybe… maybe it’s driving a little further than that. Take the final scene, a typical beaming almond sunlight mélange, set in a lovely garden. It seems very happy. Until you really think about it, and you see that its quite tremendously downbeat. But it’s visually conveyed using all of the methods of attraction, all of the typical tricks to deliver a pretty tragic payload (although I guess the tragedy of the moment is up for interpretation). And maybe that’s the real point of the film. That the beauty of visual storytelling (and Jeunet’s visual storytelling IS beautiful, do not mistake me on that) cannot always convey the most profound, long-reaching of tragedies, so maybe it’s best to slip the sadness in while looking pretty. And if that’s the case, I can still only call this film a noble failure. It’s like spiking a warm chicken broth with booze. It tastes kind of weird going down, and it only leaves you gently disoriented afterward.