Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “A Very Long Engagement” starts out by showing the fate of five men caught in the trenches of the First World War. These men didn’t volunteer for service; instead they were plucked from their simplistic lives and drafted into combat, fighting a war that they wanted nothing to be apart of. Each of them had families and loved ones that were far more important to them than being killed in some muddy wasteland, no matter the cost.
Instead of fighting gallantly along side their countrymen, they each decide at different times to shoot themselves (to wound, not kill) so they can be relieved of duty. Sadly, this tactic isn’t well received by their French commanders. They do not find anything admirable about this and they view the men as cowards. Each of them gets court-martialed and sentenced to death by way of being stranded in the barren wasteland of a battlefield between a French trench and an enemy German trench to be killed by either bullets or bombs.
The rest of the film then becomes a romantic quest (in a good way, not in a Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks way) that follows young Mathilde (Tautou). Her fiancée Manech was one of those men sent out to die and she knows in her heart (and through bizarre rituals) that he is alive somewhere. The two met when they were just kids and have bonded ever since. In their young adult lives, they began a love affair that would last shortly before Manech would be sent off to war. Before he is shipped off, the film steers away from the clichéd “lover separation” of a long exchange consisting of the typical words and promises that other war films have tackled to death. Instead it is done beautifully with the couple exchanging a few sad glares and one simple kiss instead of sappy and pointless dialogue.
That isn’t the only thing done beautifully in this film either. First is Audrey Tautou. Is there anyone out there that saw “Amelie” and didn’t fall in love with her? Surely we can also thank Jean-Pierre for this, but she still has the gift of encompassing all of the necessary emotions without going at it too dramatically or over the top.
Another “Amelie” alumnus is cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel who flawlessly mixes real photography and computer assistance. “A Very Long Engagement” is not only one of the best films of the year; it is also one of the best looking. Since it won’t be getting an Academy nod for Best Foreign Film, let’s hope that it will garner a Best Cinematography nom instead.
Fans of Jean-Pierre Jeunet may recall what happened the last time he made a film that wasn’t entirely based on something that originally came out of his head. “Alien: Resurrection” was a step-up from the previous entry but was a huge disappointment not only to “Alien” fans but also to Jeunet fans that were excited to see him work on an American film. You will not have to worry with “A Very Long Engagement” however. It is indeed based on a novel but it still carries the sensibilities of his other films (“The City of Lost Children” and “Delicatessen”) like the subtle and bizarre humor, strange occurrences and eccentric characters, it would be impossible to think of anyone else who would be more comfortable with the material.
“A Very Long Engagement” is a touch of Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” with a dash of Jeunet’s own “Amelie.” The film is near perfect in its attempt to properly mix the irrationality of war in with an interesting love story. With another director, this film could have easily ended up in “A Thin Red Line” territory. While that film may have been great, Jean-Pierre’s style makes sure we never end up on that battlefield.