A Very Long Engagement

A Very Long Engagement (2004)

I regret nothing. Except my hair”

Synopsis

In 1919 Mathilde is still awaiting the return of her fiancé, Manech who left for the front two years earlier. She has been told he was killed on the battlefield at the Somme but refuses to believe he’s dead. Mathilde launches her own investigation into his fate to prove the official story wrong.

She discovers he was one of five French soldiers condemned to death for trying to escape the horrors of WWI by self inflicting wounds to their hands. The sentence of death was carried out by making the men go onto the battlefield with no weapons, no food or water, left to the mercy of the elements and the enemy.

A sergeant who was there tells Mathilde he witnessed the deaths of the men, including Manech, but Mathilde insists she would know if he was dead. This slim thread of hope, bolstered by true love, is all she has, but she clings to it tightly in her quest for the truth.

Why We Love It

A Very Long Engagement is a great war film that delves deep into the human cost of armed conflict. The brutality of battle is contrasted with the back stories of the five men. Though the driving force is the story of Mathilde, Audrey Tautou and Manech, Gaspard Ulliel,  A Very Long Engagement has some of the best WWI scenes on film. The audience can feel the despair of the awful day to day life in the trenches punctuated by the terrifying and bloody battles that could drive men mad.

Director  Jean-Pierre Jeunet who directed Tautou in Amelie stays true to the source material in his screenplay, the 1991 novel by Sebastien Japrisot.

The film’s heroine is real and resourceful, making her way across the countryside battling bureaucrats and seeking out eye witnesses in an unrelenting drive to discover the truth.

The opening shot is the scorched earth of the battlefield. The camera moving from a broken statue of Christ on the cross, dangling by one arm. God has forsaken this place.

From there we first see the five condemned men being marched to their doom. They walk through mud, water up to their ankles, rain pelting them, passing men who have been reduced to shadows. The eyes of the barely living follow the condemned and it’s a powerful opening.

And it doesn’t stop there, but artfully takes us on Mathilde’s journey with flashbacks of the war, her childhood, her love affair with Manech, moving effortlessly through time and place.

It’s filled with great acting from the smallest to largest roles. Leading the cast is the wonderful Audrey Tautou as Mathilde, a survivor of polio who possesses an underestimated toughness, brings a beautiful, quiet determination to her portrait of a woman who refuses to believe the love of her life is dead. Gaspard Ulliel’s Manech is filled with innocence and hope even as he slips away from reality into his mind to escape the madness of the war.

Tautou and Ulliel make us believe that the love between Mathilde and Manech can never die. Clearly if that key element of the film doesn’t work, we won’t care enough to follow their journey no matter how great every other element is. But the two actors have the chemistry and talent to compel us to follow every step they take.

Look for Jodie Foster doing fine work and speaking fluent French as the wife of one of the dead men. Marion Cotillard is icy perfection as a murderous prostitute determined to exact revenge on everyone who caused the death of her Angel, another of the doomed soldiers. Her revenge will destroy her and watch for the moment when the icy demeanor melts.

The film is sweeping in scope and intimate at the same time. It has a great score that gently accents the action. The cinematography, nominated for an Academy Award in 2005, is beautiful even when it exposes the horrors of war. The direction is about as fine with Jeunet masterfully bringing the novel to life. This is an intimate epic; broad in scope and steeped in the pain, loss, love, hopes and dreams of its large cast of characters.

Moment We Fell In Love

The intense, realistic depiction of WWI immediately made me sit up and take notice. This wasn’t some sappy romance, but a film that was both lyrical and gritty. The opening sequence is so powerful that there’s no chance you’ll turn away. Each man is given a moment of back story so we immediately understand that the five doomed men had lives before they became numbers.  All of them are flawed in some way, with the exception of Manech who is portrayed as an angelic innocent ground down by the relentless assault on the senses of the war to end all wars. There’s a chilling scene where Manech is driven over the edge. He’s in a dugout, bombs falling. After the explosion we see him covered with the remains of the man who was next to him. It’s a moment that will never leave you.

Final Thoughts

This is a film that at over two hours never lags, never falters. In my opinion the film, released in 2004, has already earned the status of classic and one of the best films of that decade.

I wish I’d seen A Very Long Engagement in a movie theater. It deserves to be seen on the big screen. But I stumbled across it on cable about a year ago and now own it on DVD. It’s a film that’s a keeper and one I revisit, seeing something new every time. The DVD is a nice two disk set with commentary and extra features.

A Very Long Engagement is at times a comedy, at other moments a tragedy, a murder mystery, a love story and a war film that is always heartbreakingly human. This is a film that must be seen.

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