Perhaps only the French, who suffered so grievously as a nation in the Great War, could get away with A Very Long Engagement. This labor of love for Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, based upon Sébastien Japrisot’s novel, combines a particularly Gallic comic sensibility—replete with oddball characters among which even the fiercest, hard-bitten soldiers have a delicate but earthy charm—with the horrific nightmare of the trenches. It’s a film about what is arguably the worst war ever, yet manages to leave you not despairing at the cruelty of humankind, but inspired by the hopeless hope that allowed those caught up in it to survive.
Maybe the fact that wonderful weirdness and ruthless barbarism can coexist in us as a species is our tragedy, but that they can coexist in a film like this one—without lessening the appeal of the first or the enormity of the second—is a triumph to be savored. If art ever has a chance of saving the world, it’ll be through exploring the great human dichotomies like A Very Long Engagement does.
That makes the film sound so ponderous and self-important, and it’s nothing of the kind. It’s a small, lovely story amid an enormous one, a romantic detective mystery driven by one tiny young woman with a strength belied by her crippled legs. It’s also enchantingly convoluted, jumping back and forth in time and featuring a cast of characters so sprawling you’ll be tempted to ask for a cheat sheet to keep track of them.
You won’t need it—everything is filtered through the quick, dreamy Mathilde, and if you’re along with her for the ride, you’ll be fine. But be warned: If the gamine spunk of Amélie’s Audrey Tautou is not your cup of tea, you’ll have to look elsewhere for your great art that’ll save the world. This is two-plus hours of Tautou and her smile that seems to hide a secret in her tomboy resoluteness.
Mathilde, in 1920, is living with her aunt and uncle near a seaside fishing town when she receives word that her beloved, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), may not have been dead lo these three years after all. Condemned as a traitor and a deserter for shooting his own hand off in an attempt to be excused from the war, he is sentenced to execution, the method of which is to be sent over the top of the trenches to be picked off by German snipers. But Manech may have survived this sentence after all.
And Mathilde is off on her adventure, stumbling around France on her polio-lamed legs and running down the clues in a box of memorabilia given her by one of the survivors of Manech’s trench, justifying her quite irrational hope however she can—while peeling an apple, she tells herself that if the peel does not break, that means Manech is still alive. Red mittens and a pair of German boots stolen from a corpse and the mysterious letters “MMM” are the running threads through her quest, the strange little things that let her cling to hope in the face of absurd odds.
Her hope becomes so fantastical, actually, that we start to wonder whether all we’re seeing through her eyes is real: Did the veteran with the artificial wooden arm really use its almost robotic articulation to crack nuts? Did the whore—mistress of one of the other men condemned along with Manech, who is mirroring Mathilde’s investigation—really disguise herself as a nun? Or are these the imaginings of a clever, sad girl indulging in some of the heartbreaking desperation she finds in the stories of those she encounters in her travels?
The little mysteries of A Very Long Engagement aren’t all resolved in the end, and that’s just fine. And neither are the bigger mysteries, the whys and wherefores of love and war ... but perhaps there are no answers to be found no matter how hard we seek them.
A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT ***.5 Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Jodie Foster Rated R