Very Long Engagement, A (France, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

A Very Long Engagment is Jean-Pierre Jeunet's follow-up to his international success, Amelie. However, despite the return of elfin star Audrey Tautou, this is nothing like a sequel. Based on the novel by Sébastien Japrisot, A Very Long Engagment tells a darker tale. Whereas Amelie was optimistic and life-affirming, this movie spends much of its time in the bloody, muddy trenches of World War I, where death is a more likely companion than life, and optimism is only for the unrealistic.

The year is 1920. The war has ended. The trenches have been filled in and are overgrown by weeds and farmers' crops. For Mathilde (Tautou), however, there is no closure. Her fiancé, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), has been missing for more than three years. She has been told that he died in early 1917, but her intuition tells her that he may still be alive. So she begins an investigation of her own, tracking down official government documents, putting ads in newspapers to attract the attention of survivors who may have known Manech, and hiring a private investigator. The hunt is slow, but a picture gradually begins to emerge.

Manech was court-martialed for "self-mutilation," and sentenced to death. Along with four others facing the same punishment, he was sent to the oddly-named trench of Bingo Crepuscule. The five men, after being served a last meal, were expelled from the trench into the no-man's land between the French and the Germans. According to eyewitness accounts, none survived. But no one actually saw Manech die, and this fuels Mathilde's unrealistic belief that her lover somehow escaped. Meanwhile, as she continues her investigation, it appears that someone else is attempting something similar. Except, in this case, the witnesses aren't talking, they're dying.

The film is comprised of three elements. The first is the romance, which, like in Cold Mountain, is never fully developed because the characters are kept apart for so much of the film. There are "fill in the blank" flashbacks that tell us how Manech and Mathilde met and show some of their more tender moments, but it's not really enough to build their relationship into a great passion. Had there been more intensity in the romance, the film's emotional impact would have been blistering.

The film is constructed as a police procedural. We follow the investigation step-by-step, almost as we would in a mystery novel. Some clues turn out to be red herrings; others take us closer to unraveling the next layer of the complex onion of lies and cover-ups that conceal the truth. And, as in many mysteries, there are some rather improbable leaps of logic. This approach bogs down the film's pace in the early going, but proves to be an effective storytelling method once much of the early material has been dispensed with.

Finally, there are the war scenes, which do not skimp on portraying the ugliness of World War I. In one shocking scene, we are treated to the image of a man covered in the guts of a comrade - and spitting some of them out of his mouth. A Very Long Engagment's approach isn't as graphic as that of Saving Private Ryan, but it's never restrained. There's plenty of death, and much of it is ugly. Scenes where characters' hands are blown off will have some viewers wincing or turning away.

One of the hallmarks of Amelie was the fairy tale-like visual quality. For A Very Long Engagment, Jeunet tones down his stylistic excesses, which would be out of place in a story that is more somber. He plays with colors, frequently desaturating the hues to give his images an almost "brown-and-white" look that recalls an old, graying photograph. Moments when scenes are shot in full color are rare, although there is a spectacular instance early in the film that depicts a sunset from the top of a lighthouse.

Although Tautou has nearly as much screen time as in Amelie, she is not nearly as captivating. This is mostly because the role is more subdued. Whereas the main quality necessary to play Amelie was a pixie-like spirit, Mathilde demands a grim determination. In order to conduct her hunt for Manech, she must not only battle the attitudes of those around her (who believe he is dead), but her own physical infirmity. As a child, she contracted polio and now walks with a noticeable limp. The camera does not linger on Tautou; the lens/actress love affair from Amelie has not carried over.

While there's nothing surprising about the appearances of Dominique Pinon (a Jeunet regular, playing Mathilde's surrogate father), Chantal Neuwirth (Mathilde's surrogate mother), or Jean-Pierre Darroussin (as a soldier who is good friends with one of the condemned men), the inclusion of Jodie Foster is unanticipated. Although there's nothing wrong with Foster's performance, one has to ask why? The presence of such a well-known star in a small role is more likely to jar viewers than involve them. Put a relative unknown in the part, and all we would have seen is the character. With Foster, we lose perspective. It comes across like stunt casting.

A Very Long Engagment starts slowly, but builds to a satisfying conclusion. It's grittier than fans of Amelie might appreciate, but they should recognize that before that romantic fable, Jeunet was known for black comedies (Delicatessan, The City of Lost Children). This film finds a middle ground. Despite the war scenes, it is not unremittingly bleak, and there are times when it is darkly funny. A Very Long Engagment makes points about the absurdity of war, but balances those out by adopting the phrase that "love conquers all." And, although one could argue that the movie doesn't demand its full 2 1/4-hour running length to tell its story, and that some extraneous material could have been trimmed, the only thing "very long" about this film is in the title.

Very Long Engagement, A (France, 2004)

Run Time: 2:13
U.S. Release Date: 2004-11-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: In French with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1