A Very Long Engagement Review
By Joe Lozito
Engaged to be Harried
During World War I, French soldiers found guilty of self-mutilation - the act of harming one's self to get discharged - were sentenced to execution. No guillotine awaited them, however. The soldiers - guilty only of succumbing to the insanity of trench warfare - were marched to one particularly exposed trench and forced over the side into the no-man's land between the French and German forces. Gruesomely, their names are called each morning to determine if their sentence had been carried out overnight.
Writing again with "Amélie" partner Guillaume Laurant, French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet uses the above as a backdrop for an unlikely love story featuring Audrey Tautou in another charming, understated performance. Equal parts romance and mystery, the troublingly-titled "A Very Long Engagement" centers on Ms. Tautou's Mathilde whose fiancée, Manech, is among a group of soldiers sentenced to execution in the opening scene. Set four years after Manech's death, the film, which also features some stunning battle scenes, depicts the lengths to which Mathilde will go for her belief that Manech still lives.
Mathilde, who limps due to a bout with polio as a child, embarks on a series of wild-goose chases, going so far as to hire a questionable private eye ("the peerless pry") and steal government documents. Ms. Tautou, as always, is a natural. Her face is able to convey a balance of hope and despair (two emotions between which Mathilde seems to live) with the slightest facial movement. Her Mathilde has no proof of her conviction except her intuition, which is on display in several fine moments during which she bets with fate ("if the dog comes in before dinner is called, Manech is still alive").
The film is shot in a beautiful sepiatone, and features some of the most stunning shots of early 20th century Paris I've ever scene - witness the picnic beneath the Eiffel Tower, or the farmer's market during which Mathilde tracks down a soldier's wife. The wife is played by Jodie Foster, whose character tells her story in a long monologue. It's unclear why Ms. Foster, who speaks fluent French, wanted the role, which she plays adequately if a little less than naturally, but it's the one casting choice that launches the movie out of its carefully orchestrated time period.
Finally, the film relies one too many times on unexpected twists. Without giving too much away, let's just say there is a moment in which it is unveiled how certain soldiers managed to accomplish certain feats. However, since all the solders wear the same uniforms and have the same thick moustaches, confusion rather than revelation sets in. No doubt the subtitles obscure certain nuances of the film (one clue is found by reading alternate words of a love letter), but even with Mr. Jeunet's helpful clues, part of the film gets lost in translation.
Without a doubt, Mr. Jeunet has a gift for subtle, visual storytelling. The director leaves clues in each scene which he references to keep the audience on the same track as Mathilde. It's a masterfully woven tale full of quirky, but not precious, characters, like Mathilde's Aunt and Uncle and even their Postman. If the ending feels like a bit of a cop out - opting, it would seem, to have it both ways - it doesn't detract from the rest of the story. Like so many things in life, Mr. Jeunet's film is not about the ending, but about the journey. And what a marvelous journey it is.