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Mathilde, a young polio-crippled Frenchwoman living in Brittany with her aunt and uncle, waits and hopes long after the end of the First World War for the return of her fiancé, Manech. Long after every hope is exhausted, Mathilde hires a private detective and, with the help of her family and friends, she tracks down anyone and everyone who can shed light on the fate of Manech and four other men in the French army, sentenced to die before the Battle of the Somme.
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A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de fiançailles) comes from the same team that gave the world Amélie (2001), namely the director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and the luminous actress Audrey Tautou. Hailing originally from the novel by Sébastien Japrisot, A Very Long Engagement is a huge spectacle, impressively shot, affectingly acted, and as capable of showing the tenderness of enduring first love as of portraying the horror and arbitrary nature of war.
A Very Long Engagement moves back in forth in its timeline; though it is a love story, it is also a mystery that the audience can’t help but be wrapped up in, though the stakes are simple: has Mathilde’s (Audrey Tautou) fiancé, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), survived the First World War? In 1920, Mathilde, an orphan, lives with her loveable and affectionate aunt and uncle in a cottage by the sea in Brittany. She is independent and headstrong, despite having contracted polio as a child and bearing a limp as proof. Despite the absence of three years and having not heard a word, Mathilde maintains hope that Manech is alive—“if he was dead, she would know.”
In 1917 just before the Battle of the Somme, the French trenches are a miserable place in which to live day-to-day. Five men of trench Bingo-Crépescule are being sentenced to execution for self-mutilation. They have all shot themselves in the hand in order to be sent home early from the war, but to discourage such behavior among the rest of the troops, the French military sentences them to be thrown into the no-man’s-land between French and German lines. Among them is Manech. Another is the Corsican Angel Bassignano, who the narrator informs us is a cheat and a thief (despite his name). Another is Benoît Nôtre-Dame, a hardy farmer. The others are Six-Sous, a welder, and Bastoche, a carpenter.
However, did they die? How did they die? Could some, or all, have survived? Mathilde is determined to find out when ex-Sergeant Esperanza, who delivered the men to the trench, contacts her and gives her the condemned men’s things. From these keepsakes Mathilde learns about Angel’s lover Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard), Bastoche’s lover Véronique who reveals Bastoche and his friend Biscuit quarrelled right before the incident, and the pardon from Pétain that never reached the prisoners, and Mathilde is determined to investigate matters further. Her aunt and uncle are indulgent but wish to spare her pain; her guardian and banker, Pierre-Marie, meets her in Paris as she contracts the services of private detective Germain Pire.
In 1917, as the five men scrabble across no-man’s-land, Manech’s hand throbs where he shot himself—yet, this is the same hand that held Mathilde’s heart the first time they were together in his father’s lighthouse, shortly before their engagement and his departure. Ill and disoriented, his fellow soldiers think it unlikely he will survive.
As Pire investigates from his end, Mathilde continues tracking down soldiers, wives, and relatives of the men in order to come to some conclusion. Unbeknownst to her, Tina Lombardi is on a killing spree—murdering men who were involved in the condemnation of the five from Bingo-Crépescule. Pire tries to find Lombardi in Corsica; Mathilde searches for Bastoche in his home village. She learns that Biscuit was actually Benjamin Gordes and once she finds Élodie Gordes (Jodie Foster), his widow, she begins to understand the nature of the quarrel and its implications for the condemned men. Eventually Célestin Poux, the Kitchen Marauder and victualler extraordinaire to the troops at the Somme, arrives at Mathilde’s cottage.
While he is certain Manech was mowed down by German machine gun fire, Poux accedes to Mathilde’s request to take her to the former battlefield. While there, she is given more clues by a German woman whose brother was killed at the same battle. Encouraged by Poux, she investigates a code in Nôtre-Dame’s letter to his wife. She also visits the condemned Lombardi in prison. Just before her execution for multiple murders, Lombardi confirms many of Mathilde’s suspicions, though she has concluded that her own love, Angel, was killed in no-man’s-land. On a race to discover whether Nôtre-Dame’s code can be cracked, her hope running out, Mathilde risks her fortune and her sanity to prove that Manech is alive.
A Very Long Engagement is a complex film with interconnected characters and a fluid timeline; indeed, this is a hallmark of Jeunet’s earlier films like City of the Lost Children (1995). Despite this, it is easy to follow because of the ardent hope displayed by Mathilde. Who does not sympathize with Mathilde and hope for her loyalty to be rewarded? Tautou’s face shines with the strength of Mathilde’s faith and passion. Jeunet has also tempered the film with humorous touches, such as the gravel war between Mathilde’s uncle and the ever-arriving postman, which are sometimes desperately needed in the midst of the dark narrative. The scenes of Lombardi’s grand guignol attacks of vengeance also tip the scale slightly toward pastiche.
Nevertheless, A Very Long Engagement is a strong condemnation of war and especially the bureaucratic practices that are both morbidly laughable and pitifully painful. Warfare and suffering in the trenches, and the shellshock of desensitized soldiers, are vividly and brutally brought to life. But, to be fair, the darkness that creeps into the soul when watching these scenes is chased away by the sheer color and sumptuousness of scenes in Mathilde’s Brittany, Pire’s Paris, and the various other locations in the film: nothing is done on a small scale. It is either huge and sweeping or not to be at all.
Jodie Foster puts in a surprising (but characteristically excellent) cameo as Élodie Gordes, and the rest of the cast is more than up to the challenge of recreating the period with superb aplomb. However, the film is Tautou’s as much as it is Jeunet’s, and the whole of Mathilde’s passion sweeps you up in her quest to find her Manech. The message is one of hope, despite the extreme horrors, the petty crimes, and the long, long, long wait.
A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT