Towards the end of World War I, Mathilde (“Amelie” star Audrey Tatou) is one of the many young women around the world waiting for their betrothed to return from the front lines. When word arrives that her fiance Manech (Gaspard Ulliel, most recently seen in Andre Techine’s “Strayed”) has been court-marshaled with four others for acts of cowardice during a battle at Bingo Crepuscule and thrown into a certain death in the no-man’s land between the French and German trenches, Mathilde refuses to believe he has died. She would know if he had perished, and thus begins a years-long search for the truth of what happened to her one true love, whom she fell for in grade school and has loved unwaveringly ever since.
The best films, at least to this reviewer, are the ones which are concurrently intricate and uncomplicated, with proficient filmmakers utilizing the most powerful storytelling tools available to effectively tell undemanding stories of universal appeal. While some might find the story a bit complex (indeed, the press notes for the film included three page map of how thirty-three of the characters relate to each other), the beauty of “A Very Long Engagement” is its effortlessness in remaining true to Mathilde’s purpose, no matter where the story turns. And there are many facing our obstinate heroine as she slowly gets to the bottom of the truth about Manech’s predicament, which takes Mathilde from the home she shares with her aunt and uncle in a small coastal town (where Manech’s father worked as the lighthouse keeper) to the streets of Paris and the fields where Manech was so unceremoniously discarded years before, a peaceful meadow whose serenity betrays the horrors of wars once bestowed on its grounds.
It is during the scenes of war, both shocking and kindhearted, where Jeunet shines at his brightest. Imagine the opening of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” seen through the eyes of Krank from “The City of Lost Children” and you might have an idea of the elegiac splendor which could be found within the horrors of war. With all the madness, it is easy to see why some would inflict wounds to themselves to escape such mounting dread. Jeunet is an intelligent enough director to present the scenes of self-mutilation matter-of-factly, allowing the contempt and absurdity of the actions to speak for themselves. As we already know, war is hell, and usually most adversely affects those who have the least to gain from it. And Manech, not exactly the brightest flare in the supply kit, wants nothing more than to get back to Mathilde and the life he left behind.
Naturally, the easiest thing to do would be to compare “A Very Long Engagement” with “Amelie,” considering the two films share their director, writers, cinematographer, editor, production designer, a costume designer, the production manager, and a number of effects artists and actors, as well as similar whimsical tones at times. However, such lazy analysis betrays both films as well as the talents behind them. Which each successive film (and this includes his rightfully maligned misstep into Hollywood, “Alien Resurrection”), Jeunet has found a better balance between his preternatural gift with visual effects and his ever-growing ability in tangible storytelling. “Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children,” while being exceptional and satisfying movies, are more a series of interesting set-pieces than cohesive fables. “Alien Resurrection,” like its David Fincher-directed predecessor, suffered more from the necessity of needing the approval of many producers than anything else, but it did allow Jeunet to make his first steps into creating a fully realized story with a clear beginning, middle and end. “Amelie” would be a logical next step for someone looking to reassert his artistic individualism after a grievous deviation into compromised manufactured-by-committee filmmaking, full of those quaint, human moments audiences desire, helping to make the film a worldwide hit. It is clear Jeunet is more comfortable and confident this time around, as he brings much more nuanced performances from his leading lady and the remainder of his cast, including Jodie Foster, in a small but pivotal role.
”A Very Long Engagement” is a rapturous romance, a compelling mystery and a tremendous war film, all rolled into one, and deserving of your attention.Rating: A