A Very Long Engagement is set during World War I, and horrors abound. Manech (played by Gaspard Ulliel) is a young soldier so pretty and fresh-faced that he is nicknamed "Cornflower" by his unit. Manech has, like many, seen too much on the battlefield and resorts to deliberately having his hand shot in order to be sent to the hospital and, hopefully, home. But there is a stiff penalty for self-mutilation: death. Manech and four others like him are tossed into "No Man's Land" between the trenches of the French and the enemy Germans. The assumption is that they will quickly die and their inevitable deaths will caution against the shirking of duty.
Manech has a lover back home named Mathilde (Audrey Tautou). Mathilde is a headstrong beauty who has overcome childhood polio, and while she limps, she is no less determined nor is she any less brave than Manech. When she receives word that he has been killed on the front, she cannot believe it. She would know, wouldn't she? In her heart?
Three years pass, and Mathilde is tired of waiting. She hires charitable investigator Germain Pire (Ticky Holgado) who unravels mostly dead-ends until gradually a confusing paper trail hints that maybe not all of the soldiers died. Could it be that Manech survived? Mathilde waits at home for news until she can't wait any longer, finally visiting the sites her investigator has brought to her attention -- a graveyard, the battlefield, and even a prostitute who is on a quest of her own: to kill the men responsible for the death of her lover, one of the four with whom Manech was condemned. Every clue brings Mathilde closer to the truth, and while Manech's fate is never optimistic, there are more and more hints that not all was as it seemed three years ago in the trenches.
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has created an impressive juggling act with A Very Long Engagement. Too intimate to be an epic, the film manages to be a beautiful romance, a sometimes-funny mystery, and a harrowing war film all at once, without slighting any one of its varied components. It is accomplished by a fanciful visual scheme that captures the whimsy of young love and the very worst possible images from a grueling war. Perhaps the best way of describing the film is as a series of successful juxtapositions -- war against love, the grim acceptance of reality against the fantasy of desire. Moving on after grief versus a life of hope.
Jeunet created a fantastical confection with 2001's popular Amelie, also with Tautou in the lead. A Very Long Engagement is, by comparison, an adventuresome meal with tastes and smells both exotic and familiar and with one course moving swiftly to the next. At two and one-quarter hours, it never feels long -- so brisk is Jeunet's pacing and so purposeful his action. And while the details of Mathilde's investigation can move at a dizzying rate (Engagement is subtitled, and I confess that I was not able to read as fast as some of the facts were presented), the story itself is as clear as Mathilde's determination.
And oh -- the sights and sounds of this film: 1920s Paris, at the bus station and in the market. The French countryside. The many kinds of mud that the good fighting men trudge through or fall in. The warfare. The cobblestones. If there were computer-assisted vistas or landscapes or battles, they were inconspicuous enough to lend substantial impact to the more gripping moments, such as when an unexploded bomb wedges into the ceiling of a makeshift hospital in a zeppelin hangar, and a zeppelin is accidentally released from its moorings, slowly rising to the bomb's trigger while doctors, nurses, and patients scream, trapped.
I cannot recommend this film to everyone. So successful is A Very Long Engagement at depicting the absurdity and terror of war and so completely does the film sweep the viewer up in its hopeful search for Manech that it reminds us that we ourselves are engaged in a terrible war and that many of our own husbands, wives, and lovers are in their own trenches, some of whom will not return. I imagine this would be a difficult film to watch if you are one of those who wait -- by the phone for a call, by the door for the mail, or by the TV -- for any word whatsoever that your loved one is okay. For the rest of you, I wholeheartedly encourage you to enjoy a beautiful film destined, most likely, for a very limited engagement. ·