Deep in the heart of WWI trenches, we begin this sprawling tale by narrowing in on five French soldiers. Each man has been accused of self-inflicting a wound to escape service, and each man is sentenced to spend the rest of their likely short lives in No Man’s Land, the stretch of bare land between the two trenches. One of these men is Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), a young country boy engaged to the charming Mathilde (Audrey Tautou). When she learns his fated punishment and fails to hear word from Manech, she steps out to launch her own investigation into the possible whereabouts of Manech or the possible details of her fiancé’s demise. She enlists her family, solicits strangers, and puts ads in newspapers to unravel the truth. Along the way she hears various stories from all sorts of people and attempts to form them into a clear picture of what went on in that trench, good or bad.
A Very Long Engagement could be flippantly described as “Rashomon in a trench,” but from the get-go it grabs you by the lapels and will not let go. Once again, Jeunet tells his story in a criss-crossing narrative. Front and center we learn about each doomed man’s life in snapshot, and while the device has a slight eulogy feel, it’s a fantastic way to show the depth of characters in such brevity. A Very Long Engagement is an immeasurably rich film where each detail is threaded into the film to create a magnificent artistic tapestry beyond compare. The tiniest details in the film like Mathilde’s tuba playing (the only instrument whose sound mimics a distress call), to the mail carrier choosing to slide his bike over gravel just further enhance the vibrant, animated world of Jeunet.
Jeunet is quite possibly the most visually gifted director working today (he turned down Harry Potter 5). He couldn’t film an ugly shot composition if he tried with all his French might. As expected, A Very Long Engagement is gorgeous to look at. The production design is massively intricate, the cinematography, while computer assisted, has a shimmering radiance to it. This is simply the best looking film of all 2004, Hero be damned. You could pause any second in this film and use it as a glossy postcard. Jeunet has the technical credentials to fasten together complex and beautiful worlds. A Very Long Engagement is a technical marvel and gorgeous to experience.
Tautou, also as expected, is wonderful once more. She’s the anchor of the film and the audience feels every heartbreak and glimmer of hope this talented actress explores. The supporting cast is full of familiar Jeunet players and each performance adds to the richness of the film. They feel like characters and not stock roles or cliches.
There is some difficulty with following the storyline. There are so many subplots built upon other subplots that the film’s momentum takes a bit of a dive in the second act. A Very Long Engagement can also get very confusing when it comes to remembering so many names. There are maybe 30 characters to keep track of and as the subplots mount new characters are added to the pile, including a widow played by a surprisingly fluent Jodie Foster. It’s best to employ some kind of memory trick to keep the many colorful characters of Jeunet’s world straightened.
The focus of A Very Long Engagement is on Mathilde’s investigation into what really happened in that trench. She wants to know what happened to her beloved, and as her search picks up steam we get further glimpses of her relationship with Manech. One of my biggest problems I had with 2003’s Cold Mountain was that Jude Law was travailing through hell and back to get back to his beloved Nicole Kidman even though their relationship pre-war lasted as long as a Super Bowl commercial. It’s not that I disbelieve the overpowering nature of love, but I need more from my characters than shifty glances and a quick ejaculation of love (get your mind out of the gutter). Now, in A Very Long Engagement, Jeunet opens by showing the measures Manech will endure to return to his beloved, however, as the film goes on we also see enough peeks into the depths of their relationship beforehand, which dates all the way back to when they were children
A Very Long Engagement forges such a grand and sweeping love story that the audience gets just as immersed as Mathilde about the search for her man. There are so many lovely, intelligent moments between Mathilde and Manech, like their first sexual encounter. Every time Manech lights a new match Mathilde removes an article of clothing until, under the soft light of the newly lit match, she’s nude and blows the match out herself. The characters’ overriding love also taps into small truisms like when Mathilde makes arbitrary games for herself to ensure her love’s safety. (“If I can count to ten before that car passes, then he is alive.”) Mathilde’s faith and devotion are driving her investigation and the audience is behind her 100% of the way, fully invested in this mystery. When we reach our conclusion, I don’t mind telling you I was bawling like a baby.
The film has a merry whimsical tone during its origami-like narrative, but when it hits the trenches the film gets down and dirty. Jeunet shows a fascinating view into the hardships of everyday trench life as well as the machinery of death. Storming the other side’s trench, or “going over the top” as it was called, is seen in all its sordid features. There are hearty splashes of blood and gore that can be jarring.
There’s one terrifying scene in A Very Long Engagement involving the explosion of a makeshift hospital. The hospital is inside a hangar for zeppelins (hydrogen gas) and a missile has crashed into the roof with its nose sticking inside. One of the zeppelins becomes loose and slowly floats to the missile nose with unforgivable certainty. People are running around trying to shield themselves from the inevitable, but it does nothing. The moment is played so agonizingly slow that we become overwhelmed with terror. This was the life of WWI warfare.
Having said this, the stark war violence doesn’t exactly gel exceedingly well with the whimsical romantic elements. For some, A Very Long Engagement will seem like two very tonally different movies butting heads and intruding upon the other (perhaps Amelie Goes to War?). Sometimes it does take a while to adjust to one tone after spending time with the other. I feel that the emotional investment in the characters and the anticipation of unraveling the mystery serves as thematic glue over the disproportionate tones. Some will feel chaffed by the two stark tones, but I think the power of the love story will conquer most hearts into experiencing the bloodshed of war to earn the shedding of tears by the film’s romance.
Jeunet has re-teamed with Tautou and created another masterpiece. A Very Long Engagement took hold of me from the start and mesmerized me with its beauty, grace, cruelty, excitement, and warmth. This is a great mystery and a great love story with great visuals and great characters. The opposing tones (whimsy vs. violence) won’t work for everyone, and the film takes one too many divergent paths in the middle, but A Very Long Engagement is a film of such startling originality and feeling that it should be treasured. I was floored by what Jeunet had to offer and deeply moved by the time I had to leave the theater. They don’t make them like this much anymore. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have something in my eye.
Nate’s Grade: A