Marvel! Judge Joel Pearce has written a review about war and the French without using the phrase "surrender monkeys"—but we tease the French.
"If Manech were dead, Mathilda would know. Since the death notice, she stubbornly holds on to her intuition, like to a flimsy wire. She never gets discouraged."—The Narrator
Part romance, part war film and part mystery, A Very Long Engagement is sure to surprise you no matter what you walk into it expecting. Though many will find it slow-moving and dull after Jeunet's Amélie, it is a beautiful, moving and stirring film, and comes highly recommended.
Facts of the Case
On the front lines in 1917, a young soldier named Manech (Gaspard Ulliel, Brotherhood of the Wolf) and four other men are sentenced to death for self-mutilation. They are sent out alone into no man's land, and are believed to be dead. After the war, Mathilda (Audrey Tautou, Amélie) refuses to believe that he is dead, sensing deep within her that he is still alive. She seeks information about the events that led to the death of the five men, uncovering the pasts of all five men and leading her towards the truth. There is another seeking the information too, though, a prostitute named Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard, Big Fish) intent on murdering the men responsible for the death of her lover. Mathilda will have to hurry to follow the clues before they are lost forever.
After the wild success of Amélie, it will be impossible not to compare it to this new pairing of the director and star. Many of the quirks, themes, and styles have carried over to A Very Long Engagement, though not enough to truly connect them. Mathilda is a similar character to Amélie, a dreamer who rejects all reason in order to follow her heart. She represents purity and hope in the postwar world of lost innocence. A few other stylistic points remain, such as Jeunet's preoccupation with sex, the ironic narration, and the simplified explanations of the characters. A Very Long Engagement is a much more ambitious undertaking, though. Amélie was content to be a delightful romantic comedy. This film needs to juggle questions of war as well as love, and handles both issues well.
The relationship between Mathilda and Manech is at the core of A Very Long Engagement, although they are rarely on screen together. We briefly watch them grow up together and fall in love, but over the course of the film the two of them occupy different times and worlds. Manech lives in the trenches, where the fear and horrors of war have driven him mad. He remembers Mathilda so clearly that he has lost track of the things going on around him. When we last see him, he is standing in the most dangerous place in the world—alone in the middle of no man's land—carving their initials into the remains of a tree trunk. The war scenes are shot in desaturated greens and grays, with men who are about to die crawling through the mud littered with the men that died already. Mathilda lives in the world after the war, shot in warm sepia tones, the gold of the evening sun shining through the window. The world around her is trying to readjust to peace, returning to their old lives and putting the pain behind them. Her quest seems backwards, as she is most likely to find terrible news if she finds anything at all. The suspense of the story is improved because of his insanity. There is little question, of course, whether or not Mathilda will find Manech. The greater question is what condition he will be in when she does find him. Will he still be the one that she loves? Will what's left of him be worth finding?
This is the greatest strength of A Very Long Engagement. Mathilda's search to find the man she has lost becomes symbolic of the loss of men at war. This loss can be both physical and emotional, and every part of the film points to that loss in one way or another. The deeper Mathilda digs into the truth of what happened at the trench, the more she learns about the five men who died. They all had their own reasons for shooting themselves in hopes of escaping the war, and all of them become fully developed characters. We learn about who they were before the war, though little of those men remain as they trudge through the trenches to their deaths. The side stories also deal with this loss, though from a different perspective. Jodie Foster has a short role as the wife of one of the men, who visited her on leave, shortly before the incident. He was a shell of what he had once been, his kind and generous nature transformed into fear and survival. Tina tries to deal with the loss in her own way, struggling to avenge her unfair loss of Angel. The soldiers that help Mathilda on her search are also shells of their former selves, more interested on reminiscing about their lives before the war than helping her learn what happened at the front. These men have returned alive, but an important part of them died in that other world.
War as a loss of innocence and destruction of men is nothing new in films. That said, I've rarely seen it handled as creatively or beautifully as this. A Very Long Engagement is wonderfully crafted, each moment capturing emotions and fine details. Jeunet is one of the most skilled visual directors anywhere in the world, and every shot of this film could be captured and framed. 1920s Paris was painstakingly recreated, while still showing a unique visual flair. A lot of CGI was used to create the look of the film, but it never stands out and blends perfectly with the real elements.
The script is sharp as well, full of poetic passages, irony, and dark humor. It is not a subtle film, but there are many moments of touching honesty and heartfelt emotion underneath the dynamic visuals and flowery script. Few directors working today can be considered true cinematic craftsmen, but Jeunet deserves that title. The mystery of Mathilda's search is also well written and designed. Her journey is not a simple one, and it takes her carefully through the memories of many people. This exploration gets convoluted at times, but it also keeps the audience guessing until the very end. Pieces of memory gradually fit together as Mathilda works with others to find out what happened to Manech. Eventually, these pieces fall into place, revealing the truth of the situation and the wasteful horrors of war. It's complex enough that it welcomes a second viewing, but not confusing enough to require one.
Warner has released A Very Long Engagement on a deserving disc. Warner has been very popular for its treatment of classic films lately, but it does an exquisite job with new releases as well. This transfer is reference quality across the board. DVD video has reached its limits now, and this transfer shows what the format is capable of. The sound is just as sharp, with a strong front soundstage and clear dialogue, with the surrounds leaping into action during the battle scenes.
There are a number of special features across the two discs as well. Jeunet offers up a commentary track, which is a nonstop blast of description and explanation. It's hard to take it all in at times (it is in French and subtitled), but it is a great track for people interested in peeking beneath the magic of the film. The second disc houses the rest of the extras, and there are a number to explore. First up is a production featurette that runs over an hour, offering an entertaining and detailed look at life behind the scenes. It's one of the best of its type that I've seen. If that's not enough, there are shorter segments on the creation of 1920s Paris and the zeppelin explosion. Finally, there are 16 deleted scenes with an optional commentary by Jeunet. These are all short, and he explains that he plans scenes closely and tends to cut segments while they are still on paper.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I really enjoyed A Very Long Engagement, but I also understand why many people were disappointed by it. Audience expectation must be a frustrating thing for directors, and Jeunet refused to play the game. Fans hoping for another Amélie will probably find this film long and unfocused, with too few touching moments between Mathilda and Manech. People drawn to the film because of the war scenes in the trailer will be just as disappointed. A Very Long Engagement is about war, but it's not a war movie, and the pacing is quite slow. This is a unique film, one that tells an old-fashioned story using every trick in the postmodern film book.
Many people who walk into A Very Long Engagement with strong expectations will come away disappointed. This film isn't as tightly knit as Amélie was, and it moves at a languid pace. Still, it's a powerful emotional experience, finding a new angle to approach issues of war, love, and the connection between two people who know they belong together. All fans of foreign film need to at least rent it, and I think it deserves to have a place on many DVD shelves.
A Very Long Engagement is not what I expected, but it's still a stunning work of art. Everyone involved is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Director's Commentary
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