Just watching A Very Long Engagement, by the same writer/director of Amelie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, is indeed a very long engagement.
It is the story of two young children, Mathilde (Audrey Tautou, Dirty Pretty Things) and Menache (Gaspard Ulliel) who fall in love as teenagers and become engaged just before Menache is conscripted into the French Army in 1917 during World War I. He would write M M M everywhere = Menache Marries Mathilde and Matilde Marries Menache.
The battles are terrible and the generals are stupid. Menache and four others each injure a hand (in scenes that are extremely explict and violent) so they will be sent home from the front. Instead, they are sentenced to death. They must walk into the “no man’s land” between the French and German trenches and serve as bait to get things, the battle, going again. As they walk through the French trenches, they are warned to watch out for the wire – that is, the telephone wire that was connected to the French president who could commute their sentence.
That’s about all I can really say. A Very Long Engagement is a war story, as terrible as anything Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan) or Anthony Minghella can create (The English Patient and Cold Mountain.) The battle scenes are relentless and horrible. The film is a love story, as tender and as difficult as a Minghella film. In fact, the convoluted way the timeline is played out reminded be of both The English Patient and Cold Mountain. Then, the film is a mystery, and this is where it excels. Just how Mathilde works out in 1920 what happened and when and who knows what, kept me interested, though I could have done without some of the twists and turns.
A Very Long Engagement has only one major problem: it isn’t what I or some of the other folks in the audience expected (I chatted with some ladies afterwards.) The previews on television and in the theaters make it look like a tender love story. It is mostly a story of a stupid, senseless, brutal war and one general in particular, and a mystery. Very short on romance (but with some sex), though it fits the genre overall because of the sacrifices the two young people were willing to make for one another. But it was also too complicated for its own good. It starts off with five stories and grows and grows. At a certain point I am sure even Mathilde couldn’t connect the dots – but she does.
Jodie Foster is a surprise, and her French sounded very good to me. There is gentle humor in the film and it is rich in symbolism. The cinematography is beautiful; this must have been a very expensive film to produce. The sepia tone gives in a credible dated look.
There are signs everywhere. Mathilde keeps saying, “If I can get to the bend in the road before that car, I will know he’s alive.” “If the dog comes in before it’s time for dinner, I will know he’s alive.” She loves, believes, hopes and never gives up.
There are many “story morals” here, too, especially in the parallel search that a woman named Tina makes.
This is a believable, epic story. Is this Academy worthy? It should get a nomination, but it just didn’t make me say, “Ah ha!”