True love and the
horrors of war are such polar opposites in the human condition that it is
probably not surprising how often the two are joined together in the name
of art. However, going back to the beginning of storytelling, it has been a basic conflict that has recurred through the centuries,
from Helen of Troy to the Knights of the Round Table to A Farewell To
This basic storytelling
contradiction still has bite in this French film. (Well, there is some
controversy in France whether it should be considered a French film as it
was financed by an American company, Warner Independent Pictures. However,
the dialogue is in French, it was filmed in France, 99% of the cast is French, the writers and
director are as well, so as far as I'm concerned it is French.) A
Very Long Engagement is based on Sébastien Japrisot's 1991 novel about
a woman who refuses to believe the overwhelming evidence that her beloved
was killed in World War I. Despite the world telling her that he
died on the battlefield, Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) cannot believe that
Manech could be gone from the Earth, because she still feels him in the
world and in her life.
The film does an
amazing job of contrasting the inescapable dreadfulness of battle with gorgeous countrysides and cities of early Twentieth Century France. Since
Saving Private Ryan came out several years ago, films about war feel
duty-bound to explore the revulsion of combat. This movie's battlefield
scenes are extraordinarily disturbing, not just because of the violence –
although that is certainly a nearly constant and explosive reality and danger.
The amazing thing that is shown is the squalor of the conditions, even
when things are relatively calm. Hundreds of men stand knee-deep in
muddy water at the bottom of long, labyrinthine bunkers, surrounded by
rats, freezing cold, wet, hungry, with little in the way of good food and
drink. However the worst part is just the waiting, knowing that at
some time they will be forced to climb up out of the bunker – more likely
than not be shot on sight.
You can understand why
any soldier there would do whatever it takes to get out of this
situation. Manech is one of five officers who are condemned to death
for self-mutilation, for purposefully getting shot in hand so that they will
be sent home. The five soldiers are sent to the front and forced out
of the bunker right into the no-man's-land in the middle of French and
German trenches and then told to fend for themselves.
Three years later,
Mathilde still can't allow herself to believe that Manech is dead.
Even she recognizes that this conviction is probably wishful thinking,
however, as she states several times, without that faith she really has no
reason to go on. Mathilde has been handicapped since she was a child
– polio has left her with a constant limp. Her parents died when
she was only a little girl, and while she loves her aunt and uncle
(Dominique Pinon and Chantal Neuwirth), she
has always had trouble making friends. She and Manech knew each
other since childhood and they are devoted to each other, partially
because they both felt like outcasts. They were like two halves of a
whole, and Mathilde grasps at coincidence and a gut feeling that she would
just know if her fiancé was gone.
Mathilde travels to
Paris and around the French countryside meeting the friends and lovers of
the condemned soldiers, trying to find out what happened on the fateful
day at the bunker. These people include a woman who because of the
war lost not only her
husband, but also the man she was surprised to fall in love with (a wonderful cameo by Jodie Foster, who is
impressively fluent in French). She also meets a bartender who lost
his best friend in the battle, the cook at the bunker who was kind to the
condemned soldiers, the sister of one of the enemy soldiers and one of the
condemned soldiers who was able to survive and create a new life for
himself and his family on a secluded farm. There is also the widow
of one of the men, a prostitute who is conducting an investigation into
the soldiers' fate as well – although she has a more sinister motive for
finding out what happened.
Audrey Tautou does a
wonderful job of portraying Mathilde, a much more sober and brooding
her breakthrough starring role in Amelie. Gaspard Ulliel
brings a childlike innocence to the character of Manech. The rest of
the cast is similarly stellar. The direction, by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who had
previously done The City of Lost Children, Delicatessen and
Amelie) is gorgeous, with grand vistas and retro filming styles
casting a spell.
The amazing thing about
A Very Long Engagement is the fact that as ugly and hideous as much
of what happens on the screen is, this is a spectacularly beautiful movie.
Rolling French countrysides, the Orleans train station in Paris,
lighthouses over storm tossed oceans, cozy bungalows and a not quite
finished Eiffel Tower are just some of the spectacular sites on screen.
The movie works spectacularly as an argument against war, but it also
makes a surprisingly strong case for the power of true love. (12/04)