The star and director of 'Amélie' take us to the trenches of World War I to find a young fiancé
A Very Long Engagement begins in the infamously muddy and claustrophobic French trenches of World War I. The conflict has reached its nadir, and the armies face off in bizarrely ritualized barbarity. Five French soldiers are being escorted to their death through the fetid muck, accused of self-inflicted mutilation in order that they might return home - a few to wives, one to his devoted whore, the youngest and most frail to his equally young and frail fiancée. Flash forward to the film's present, a countryside and people whose wounds have just begun to turn to scars. The soldier's betrothed, Mathilde, refuses to accept that Manech died on that battlefield, victim of an army desperate to curb desertion.
Supported by her doting, if somewhat incredulous, aunt and uncle, and aided by a classically French set of characters (the generous thief, the avenging angel, the mensch postman, among others), Mathilde sets off on a cross-country investigation that ultimately unearths Manech's fate and a minor government scandal.
The film's internal logic dictates that Mathilde must be reunited with Manech: From childhood, when he is first attracted to her polio-induced limp, they are presented as two pieces of chipped china who together make a tea-worthy cup. Yet, Mathilde has compromised her, and our, faith by seeking celestial signs. If the conductor comes to take my ticket before the train enters the tunnel, she tells herself, Maneche is still alive. In the nick of time, the door to her berth opens and a uniformed man requests her ticket. "Just kidding!" he laughs when she sits up. And so all of the signs she receives can be read as warnings against false hope or reminders that faith must persevere in the face of empirical evidence. You must make your own fate seems to be the message in the end, and Mathilde tries her best, aided by survivors who remember the winsome young soldier, or heard a tale of their secret code (MMM: Mathilde marries Manech) carved on a battlefield tree.
Despite director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's arthouse reign, which began in the States with 1991's Delicatessen and escalated with the 2001 Amélie, in the American idiom he was a bit of a flop (Alien 3: Resurrection), so his remarkable recreation of the French-German front is unlikely to get the fawning reviews that greeted Saving Private Ryan. Jeunet reminds the audience in grueling detail that the troops lived more or less like maladapted moles, cowering in dank recesses, sleeping in their battle fatigues, dying under the suffocating piles of collapsed trench walls. My skin itched and I squirmed with sympathy for the men who wished to escape a war so physically and psychically devastating that it heralded the demise of modernism in Europe.
The film has a few weaknesses, one of which is the slightly overbearing narration, based faithfully, I am told, on the source novel. It is used frequently to carry us through coincidences and quirks that might be otherwise hard to swallow, but the core of the story rings true.
While Mathilde clings to loose threads in the tale of Manech's fate, Manech clings to his wounded hand in whose throbbing he feels Mathilde's heartbeat. It's not until the very end of the film that we clearly hear Mathilde's syncopated gait as she follows the last clue to its conclusion, and it sounds just like a heart beating. •
By Elaine Wolff