A Very Long Engagement
(Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles) (2004)
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * ½

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Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), the kindly, brave son of a lighthouse keeper, goes mad while fighting in the trenches during the First World War and subsequently mutilates himself, for which he is condemned to death. Together with a group of other persons who have also been convicted of deliberating injuring themselves, Manech is taken to a place designated Bingo Crepuscule and thrown into the no-man's land between the French and German lines to die. Years later, after the war's end, his fiancée, Mathilde (Audrey Tautou), a young Breton woman crippled by polio, who is completely in love with Manech, and has been since the two were children, still refuses to believe that he has died. With only tidbits of information about Manech's fate, she sets out on a quest to discover what happened to him. While her investigations reveal that the man she loves may yet be alive, they also expose a wonderfully complicated web of events that conceals a variety of surprises.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement is a beautiful and melancholy film that manages to be profoundly heartwarming without ever giving way to a saccharine sentimentality.

The movie is made particularly enchanting as a result of the genuine loveliness with which the director has suffused it. From his gloomy, sorrowful portrayals of trench warfare, which are dominated by oppressive, ghastly greys, to his joyous, golden tinged depictions of the French countryside, the director has created a consistently gorgeous film. Every scene is so perfectly choreographed, carefully framed, and delicately realized that A Very Long Engagement is able to arouse in the viewer a number of poignant emotions with its images alone.

Fortunately, the director has complemented his enthralling vision with an equally captivating tale. Jeunet has, in fact, crafted such an intricate narrative, alive with hopes, disappointments, surprises, and coincidences, that he is sure to fascinate most any viewer. He interweaves Mathilde's search for Manech with that man's wartime experiences, and both of these with the tales of other women who had been dear to the men who died at Bingo Crepuscule. In one of these stories, he tells how such a woman, having decided to avenge her beloved's death, has begun hunting down and killing the men responsible, and, in another, he recounts the sad and lonely story of the Polish wife of another of Manech's companions, who, believing that the army would discharge him if he had a sixth child, convinced his best friend to try to impregnate her.

Even the devices with which Jeunet relates his stories and the fanciful, quirky motifs with which he has adorned them are inventive, lovely, and engaging. His frequent use of narration, for instance, both assists in giving A Very Long Engagement the feel of a fairy tale and allows the viewer to look deeply into the hearts of the movie's characters. This touching sense of magic is further enhanced by bewitching visions of an albatross soaring through the skies, of a German biplane sweeping down upon Manech, and of Mathilde's guardians' quaint house. The characters inhabiting these places are just as enchanting, and their eccentricities give them a genuine warmth. We are thus shown how Mathilde's foster mother loves dog farts, how Manech is a truly caring, goodhearted, and decent individual, and how Mathilde herself often relies upon her superstitious belief that she can predict the future or preserve her lover's life by achieving some goal, as counting to a certain number or running to a particular road, before another event occurs. All these persons and countless charming oddities with which the film is packed add to its unique, otherworldly loveliness and never let the viewer's interest waver.

What is more, while the director brings out the sadness and brutality with which life is frequently filled, instead of letting these burden his film with a sense of cynical despair, he uses such feelings to bring out Mathilde's undying, naïve hope. He reveals how her faith, her need, in fact, to believe that Manech is alive is never extinguished, even though it is, at times, briefly overcome by the universe's terrible cruelty. The movie may be sorrowful, it may even be occasionally horrific, but, as a whole, it is a joyous acclamation of life. As wretched as her existence may be, Mathilde never succumbs to the world's harsh attacks, but continues to dream.

Lastly, I should add that the performances of the cast members are consistently accomplished. Audrey Tautou, however, is, once again, particularly radiant. She brings to her character such feelings of naïveté and of absolute, unquestioning love that she is sure to charm the viewer so completely that he is made to drown himself in his experience of Mathilde's emotions. While she may not be as vivacious or as sprightly as she is in Amélie, the actress, nonetheless, conveys a poignant sense of tragic loneliness and hopeful love that makes her wonderfully appealing to watch.

Even though I cannot say that A Very Long Engagement ever attains true greatness, it is such a moving, delightful, and lovely film that it is certain to enthrall the viewer.

Review by Keith Allen

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