In 1991, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (along with Marc
Caro) finished Delicatessen, the brilliant feature
film that established his career. In that same year, he also encountered
a novel, Un Long Dimanche De Fiançailles, by the
celebrated French writer, Sébastien Japrisot.
Jeunet was entranced and dedicated to making the novel into a film,
but Warner Bros. had also seen the filmic potential of this novel
and had secured the rights. It took 10 years and the worldwide success
of the film, Amélie (2001), to place Jeunet in the
position to fulfill his dream.
The story concerns five French soldiers in 1917 of World War I.
They have been court-martialed for cowardice, evidenced by their
respective self-mutilation in the hope of escaping the hopeless
combat of trench warfare, and they are sentenced to the certain
death of being thrown into the no-man’s land between the French
and German lines. Each has a unique story. One in particular, Manech
(Ulliel), is a young man with a very special fiancée,
Mathilde (Tautou), awaiting his return. She refuses
to accept the reports of the death of the love of her life and begins
a personal investigation. What unfolds is an intricate tale of human
strength and weakness and of the battle not between France and Germany
but between hope and reality.
Trying hard not to give anything away, perhaps I can tell you what
NOT to expect from this film. First, it is not a war film, though
it does include harrowingly graphic battle footage. The narrative
takes a non-linear progression following the personalities involved,
which keeps the graphic violence and mayhem nicely compartmentalized
into ever more effective episodes that illustrate a point, but never
revel in the war. Nor is this film a classic love story, though
it has some of the most hauntingly romantic scenes you are ever
likely to see in a film of any genre. For convenience, it might
be better to think of this film as a detective story, only it’s
not concerned so much with the killer—the war—as with
the various victims. The film also happens to be an effective anti-war
film, but only coincidentally so. Though the tragic suffering and
waste of war is ever-present and is effectively underlined by the
costs to human relationships that are recognizable and sympathetic,
the film does not dwell on this significance. It has an even loftier
The title, A Very Long Engagement, implies a certain
lighthearted humor that you would expect from the director of Amélie.
Let me spare you this disappointment now; this film is not a comedy.
Understand that I do not do this to be mean, to spoil any surprise,
nor to belittle the film, but to try to help. I’ll admit that
I have such a love of Jeunet’s earlier work, I kept looking
for some perverse humor that just wasn’t there. This was a
distraction. You simply can’t hold that against any director
that the overwhelming and unique charm of their previous works might
haunt a new endeavor. Perhaps if you are prepared, you won’t
make this same mistake that I did. This is not to say that the film
is unrelentingly drab; it is dynamically beautiful, celebrating
the primal coarseness of life. There are many humorous moments,
but they most often are found to serve the serious themes of the
There is no mistaking that this film is the work of a master,
or more properly, several masters. One can start with a massive
cast that has no weak link. Jodie Foster gives
a stunning and economical performance in a role with challenges
that are almost beyond belief. Angelo Badalamenti
has contributed a score that I think one of his best ever. The cinematography
of Bruno Delbonnel is full of gorgeous and rewarding
detail while staying in a tone that editor Hervé
Schneid blends effortlessly with historical footage. Véronique
Melery has lovingly done incredible set decoration worthy
of a Jeunet film, and Madeline Fontaine has done
period costumes that are (I cannot vouch for accuracy) compelling.
Jeunet, in all of his films, uses detailed environments that are
so complete as to create what some might call an alternative universe.
A spiritual reality seems to arise from the gritty common objects
that fill each frame. Here, all of the artisans of this crew have
worked to endow that spiritual reality with a singular purpose.
The answer revolves around Mathilde. Audrey Tautou’s wonderful
performance, at first glance, may seem to be rather one-dimensional.
I think that this is because she represents a character with a singular
purpose, and intentionally so. She gifts Mathilde with a determination
that transcends endearing, going right on past disturbingly obsessive
to being quasi-religious, positively thematic. What is the answer?
Of course, that is something that you will have to discover for
yourself, not because I don’t want to tell you, but because
I don’t really know. I have some suspicions, but I could be
wrong. Like other Jeunet films, multiple viewings of A Very
Long Engagement will help. Rather than being irritating, I
think that this is the mark of a probable masterpiece, and I’ll
probably regret not giving this film that fifth star.