Love and War
Even though following all the characters in A Very Long Engagement turns out to be quite a challenge, Bruno Delbonnel's exceptional cinematography makes watching this French movie a memorable experience. In one of the year's most well-filmed motion pictures, images of bloody battlefields contrast dramatically with peaceful countryside scenes. Ambitious in scope, the film chillingly depicts the horrors of war while focusing on the courage of a young woman who searches for her fiancé, a soldier declared missing in action at the end of World War I.
Audrey Tautou (Amelie) delivers another wonderful performance here. She brings both playfulness and strength to the role of Mathilde, and I wanted desperately to see this determined woman succeed in her quest to find Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), her child-hood sweetheart. Despite disbelief all around her, Mathilde insists Manech is still alive. After all, no one actually saw him killed, and there are various stories about what happened to him. Nothing seems to stop Mathilde in her mission, not even her disability resulting from polio. She hires a private detective, steals government documents, puts an ad in the paper requesting to hear from people who knew something about Manech, and travels to Paris for interviews.
I wish the story stayed more with Mathilde. Introduction of various soldiers and their entanglements (even one featuring the great Jodie Foster) failed to hold my interest, probably because I became so fascinated with Mathilde and her eccentricities. It’s hard to resist someone who plays the tuba and tempts fate with strange little games like: “If I reach the bend in the road before the car does, Manech will come back alive.”
Returning to the film’s incredible visual appeal, I must say that some of the scenes in A Very Long Engagement took my breath away. In flashbacks, Mathilde and Manech are shown as children playing in a lighthouse, and one brief shot captures Mathilde dangling dangerously from a very high railing. Later, a zeppelin blows up inside a hangar at the end of an extremely suspenseful sequence. I actually gasped out loud at the audacity of these images.
Based on a novel by Sebastien Japrisot and directed by Jean-Paul Jeunet, who co-wrote the screenplay with Guillaume Laurant (both men, as well as Delbonnel, worked on Amelie), the movie runs a bit too long at well over two hours. Nevertheless, it covers a lot of territory, and I admire the attempt to combine elements of adventure, mystery and romance in such a visually exciting package. Also, because of its unflinching portrayal of how war shatters the lives of soldiers and their loved ones, A Very Long Engagement compares favorably to epic films like Gone with the Wind, The English Patient and Cold Mountain. That’s not too shabby, now is it?
(Released by Warner Independent Pictures and rated “R” for violence and sexuality.)