A Very Long Engagement

written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant

directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

starring Audrey Tautou


review by Stephen Notley

It's 1914 wartime France, pissing rain, sloppy muddy trenches, five men are being escorted to the front lines, freshly court-martialed for "intentional self-mutilation" -- that is, capping their palms over the rifle muzzle, gritting their teeth and pulling the trigger, blood and fingers spraying into the mud, all to try to get a ticket home. Their punishment is execution by German firing squad, so over the top they go, and they're killed.

Or are they? One of the men was a wide-eyed kid named Manech, and three years later his fiancé Mathilde refuses to believe he's dead. She can feel it, the wire that connects them, her belief --no, her *knowledge*-- that he's somewhere alive. And so, stiffly limping every step of the way, she sets out to find him.

That's A Very Long Engagement, the new film from the Amelie team of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and star Audrey Tautou. Like Amelie, A Very Long Engagement is a kaleidoscopic film, relying on strings of details (one red mitten with white spots, repeated carvings of "MMM") to tie its thoughts together, like looking through a box of old memories and testimonies, piecing together bits of the past. But where Amelie's windings are an elfin love letter to love and Paris, A Very Long Engagement threads its way through the First World War, the odd and sometimes shameful nooks and crannies of the lives of some people who went through it.

Audrey Tautou is Mathilde. There's little of Amelie's impish gleam in her; Mathilde is quiet and determined in her circuituitous search for Manech. She makes little deals with fate; "If I don't break the peel on this apple, Manech is alive" or "If I make it to the bend before the car, Manech isn't dead," only to break the peel and miss the car again and again. But each time she reties the wire; it's still there, he's still alive. It's an understated but effective performance; with her bold limp and iron resolve she guides us along the meandering byways of the story.

The search for the truth of the prisoners of Bingo Crepuscule (the often-commented-on odd name of the frontline trench in question) leads to oddnesses, many and varied, death by mirror, French shooting French, grenade vs. biplane, a hydrogen-filled surveillance balloon in an emergency field hospital, Jodie Foster enthusiastically trying to get pregnant by her husband's buddy to get her husband out of the war. There are the moments on the lighthouse when Mathilde blew out the candle for Manech. We meet wax-mustached detective Germain Pire, "Peerless Pry", zipping about digging up clues for Mathilde, and then there's the man with the wooden hand, and the Corsican pimp advancing on the German lines, and the gravel-skidding postman. Little details, little moments that pile up.

Like any Jeunet film A Very Long Engagement is brilliantly shot, lots of autumn colors, golds and brown, but it isn't pretty like Amelie. The shells and explosions of the war blew mud, dirt, clothing, pieces of person everywhere to be mixed together, plowed under and turned to field, and the film roots through the soil to find fragments everywhere. Even though Mathilde's wire of conviction is the only thing that sustains through the war, this is no exultant treatise on love, and it ends quietly. A satisfying, if elliptical, little film.