Five desperate French soldiers during The Battle of the Somme shoot themselves, either by accident or with purpose, in order to be invalided back home. Having been "caught" a court-martial convenes and determines punishment to be banishment to No Man's Land with the objective of having the Germans finish them off. In the process of telling this tale each man's life is briefly explored along with their next of kin as Methilde, fiancée to one of the men, tries to determine the circumstances of her lover's death. This task is not made any easier for her due to a bout with polio as a child. Along the way she discovers the heights and depths of the human soul. Written by
Lovely Audrey Tautou and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet reteam (having previously made the delightful comedy Amelie) in the epic war drama, A Very Long Engagement, based on the novel by Sebastien Japrisot. It is a visual powerhouse of a film that defies conventional genres by melding together different themes and injecting a generous dose of period authenticity. This French language film is an emotional odyssey that keeps you guessing while it never loses sight of its humanity and even humor.
Childhood friends and then lovers, Mathilde (Tatout) and Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) are separated when duty calls in World War One France. War is hell and the trench fighting that will claim countless lives begins to take its toll on men's sanity and tolerance. Manech becomes one of five soldiers arrested for cowardice because each has a self inflicted hand wound to evade the deadly fighting. But instead of execution by firing squad, the condemned men are forced into no man's land to be fodder for the German line.
It is almost certain that all the prisoners died that day, but years later, in 1920, Mathilde continues in her quest to find the truth and her lover. Aided by her aunt and uncle, she enlists the help of an investigative agency and lawyer to track down the people who knew Manech. Slowly the list grows and one clue connects with another as more witnesses emerge. What starts out as a somber war romance develops into a fascinating adventure of love and mystery of fate as Mathilde follows the trail. Sure, she does get frustrated as a couple of clues are dead ends, but when a connection is established, the story leaps forward. At times the help comes from an unexpected source and at other times, sheer coincidence saves the day. There is even a subplot involving treachery and betrayal. Before long, the audience will become caught up in her journey. Is Manech alive and will Mathilde ever find him? The film's structure weaves back and forth through flashbacks with great ease and clarity. An occasional voice over narration ties up the loose ends. As the plot begins to make more sense, key scenes are retold from different viewpoints in the Rashomon style of storytelling. The battle scenes, quite grim and realistic (Saving Private Ryan type of action), are light years ahead of Paths of Glory's anthill scenes, although the opening march through the trenches is almost identical to Kubrick's 1957 classic. There is even a hint of the older favorite, Random Harvest, which also dealt with a wartime romance and search.
A Very Long Engagement is blessed with a strong ensemble cast although it may require a score card to keep track of all the names. Andrey Tautou is quite good as the anxious searcher. Her beauty never detracts from her acting talent. Gaspard Ulliel reminds one of a young Ethan Hawke in his innocence amid difficult circumstances. As the wife of a key character, Jodie Foster is effective as she corresponds with Mathilde. Yes, Jodie does the French thing well, but her appearance is a bit jarring. Dominique Pinon, a favorite of Jeunet's (Alien: Resurrection, Amelie), lends good support as the uncle. Even the smaller roles are well rounded and memorable, a testament to good casting, strong writing, and Jeunet's direction.
This big budget film is lengthy, but it does have the sweep of a big time novel. The production is outstanding in the authentic costumes and historic set designs of 1920. Jeunet employs cinematography and computer graphics effectively to recreate the era magnificently. He has always been a marvelous director of eye candy, and the film is wonderful to look at. Angelo Badalamenti who has spent a lot of time scoring the moody thrillers for David Lynch is allowed to flourish here with a lushly romantic, emotional soundtrack.
Doubtless this is very likely the ultimate French tearjerker, a kind of Gone with the Wind meets Cold Mountain type of film. It serves as a commentary on war, a romantic fable, a revenge tale, and an intricate mystery. It is a film that defies pigeonholing and that's part of the fun. It also has well defined characters and nice touches of detail and exposition. In short, it is one powerful movie to close out 2004.
***1/2 stars out of ****
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