—About this Film
A Very Long Engagement reunites actress Audrey Tautou and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet who together made the pleasant love story Amélie. But don’t look for the same light-hearted comedy this time out.
A Very Long Engagement is the story of a young French woman (Mathilde) searching for her fiancé (Manech) who has been sentenced to death for intentionally getting wounded in hopes of being sent home from the trenches of World War I. Rather than a straight forward execution, he and four others are sent out of the trench into No Man’s Land - the area between the trenches. There they will no doubt either be shot by one side or the other, or eventually starve. It is a cruel sentence. It was meant to be a deterrent to others who might think of wounding themselves to escape the war.
Even after word of his death, Mathilde refuses to believe Manech is dead. She lives in hope that some how he will be found alive. Her quest begins in earnest after, in 1920, she is called to a veterans’ hospital to hear a man tell the story of Manech’s demise. She finds enough to question in the story to begin an investigation. Slowly she begins to learn more and more about the tragedy of these five condemned men. But she also keeps learning of discrepancies in the stories, which continue to give her hope, even as each story affirms Manech’s death.
The film really is a combination of a war story, the love story of Mathilde and Manech, and a detective story driven by Mathilde’s love. The detective story is the most engaging of the stories. In it, Mathilde has ups and downs as she gets evidence that Manech might still be alive and other evidence that makes it seem sure he is dead. The more people she talks to, the more this quandary grows.
The love story is less well developed. We see brief looks back at their childhood and their time before the war, but we really aren’t brought into the relationship that is so consuming for Mathilde. It is hard to understand, other than the denial of grief, why Mathilde can have such certainty that Manech still lives. Without that understanding, the central premise of the film become shaky.
The war story is also well developed, but also very intense and violent. To be sure, the trench warfare of World War I was miserable in both physical and psychological ways. This film does its best to show us the misery of that experience. The film shows us bodies being ripped by bullets and blown apart by bombs.
At the core of these three elements is hope. We may not understand what sustains Mathilde’s hope, but we do see that the hope is what sustains her. She is willing to give all she has to find her lover. That hope rides a roller coaster as things look promising or dire, but Mathilde is never ready to get off the coaster. Even after finding his grave, she continues on her quest in hope that even that grave is wrong. The film’s ending, which I found to be a bit too easy and contrived, is also grounded in hope. We are not sure what will become of Mathilde after the final scene, but we know that there is promise of something wonderful happening. We know that there is hope that the love she has shared will live again.