February 23, 2005 -- “A Very Long Engagement” (Un long dimanche de fiançailles) is one of those epic love stories set against a backdrop of war. As such it is reminiscent of such classics as “Gone With the Wind” and “Dr. Zhivago.” But it is also a mystery, as the main character, Mathilde (Audrey Tautou of Amélíe) tries to find out what happened to her lover, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel of “Brotherhood of the Wolf”) a French soldier who disappeared during World War I.
Manech, a very reluctant soldier, gets himself deliberately wounded in an attempt to get sent home to Mathilde, but is sent instead into no man's land between the French and German trenches to die with four other men. They are sentenced to death because they are thought to have self-inflicted wounds. The French Army declares them dead, but Mathilde feels that Manech is still alive. She hires a private detective to find the truth and she interviews soldiers who served with Manech. Each soldier tells a different story about Manech. Like “Roshomon,” we see different visions of the truth, but there are common threads in all the stories. Soldiers saw Manech get wounded, but no one saw him actually die. Mathilde nurses a very thin hope that somehow Manech survived his wounds and somehow he made it out of the deadly no man's land between the trenches.
The battle scenes in the film are brutal, but they are all shown in brief flashback scenes, so they are not too overwhelming. The look of the film is impeccable, with very realistic-looking war and street scenes. The film received Academy Award nominations for its cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel of “The Cat's Meow”) and art direction. The film's production designer is Aline Bonetto (“Amélíe”). It is directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Amélíe”). The story is based on a novel by Sébastien Japrisot. Despite the Epic sweep of the film, it is still an intimate, human story. We also see the effects of warfare on the spouses of the soldiers. Even the wives whose husbands survive the war don't escape unscathed by it because of the mental cost to their husbands. One such war bride, Elodie Gordes, is played by Jodie Foster (“Panic Room”). Her tale of woe is unique in the film. There are the expected sex scenes, one involving Foster, another involving Tautou. This film is in French, available with English subtitles.
The story, being a mystery of sorts, is compelling. Tautou carries the film well. Her sweetness, innocence and mischievousness help offset the brutality of war. Despite that, there is a strong spine of determination in her. There are some good supporting performances by Foster and others. There are also some quirky characters that keep things interesting, like a reckless postman (Jean-Paul Rouve), a woman who thinks that dog flatulence is good luck and a woman avenging the death of her lover. Other good characters include the detective, Germain Pire (Ticky Holgado), the put-upon Priest of Milly (Michel Chalmeau). This film rates a B.
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