Although it starts off like a war film - opening in the muck and mire, as all good war films must - and gives us plenty of reason to understand why these soldiers shot themselves in the hand (a sort of purposeful self-stigmata), A Very Long Engagement is really about a woman trying to find her lost love. The woman, Mathilde, is played by Jeunet's muse, Audrey Tautou, and though she doesn't here have the near-angelic glow he gave her in Amelie, she's plenty captivating nonetheless. Mathilde fell in love with her childhood friend, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), and we see their romance in flashback, all frolicking in their picturesque village, swooning episodes atop a lighthouse and innocent carnality. Then the war comes, and poor, fresh-faced Manech is sent off to the front, later to be one of the five hurled into no man's land by a callous military bureaucracy determined to make an example of them. After the war, Mathilde refuses to accept what seems obvious to everybody else, that Manech is dead, and she launches on a journey to dig up every last piece of information she can about the case and find out what happened to her one true love.
Now A Very Long Engagement is a Jeunet film, so even given this kind of high-concept romance, anyone expecting a foursquare kind of English Patient-style gloss will end up sorely disappointed. With his typically pixie-ish sense of humor, Jeunet brings a light and jaunty tone to a tale that could easily have been rendered brooding and overly artful. Thusly, the narrator continually relates the onscreen action like a gossipy best friend, with perfect comic timing, while bits of absurdity speckle the story, from Mathilde's incongruous tuba-playing to a subplot about one of the dead soldiers' lovers who resorts to impossibly complex methods of killing off those she believes responsible for his death. Jeunet also ratchets most of the performances up into the stratosphere, leaving little room left for subtlety.
Providing some nice ballast to some of the loony goings-on is a surprise turn from Jodie Foster, whose fluency in French helps her slip seamlessly into the otherwise all-Gallic cast. Her story is essentially extraneous to the main plot, but it's a small gem regardless. As the wife of one of the soldiers, who is infertile but wants her to have a child regardless, the husband convinces her to sleep with his best friend, and although she does it against her wishes, the two of them end up falling in love. Melodramatic to a fault, it's nevertheless the most real-seeming thing in the film, which can at times resemble a Belle Epoque bon bon, all quaint French villages and sweeping vistas of countryside.
Ravishing to look at and often quite touching, A Very Long Engagement is ultimately too manipulative to achieve true lasting greatness.
The DVD includes a second disc of extras, including commentary from Jeunet (in French), deleted scenes, and three making-of tracks.
Aka Un long dimanche de fiançailles.
A very long flight.
Run time: 133 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 27th October 2004
Box Office USA: $6.2M
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production compaines: Warner Bros. France, 2003 Productions, TF1 Films Production, Tapioca Films
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 78%
Fresh: 113 Rotten: 31
IMDB: 7.7 / 10
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Starring: Audrey Tautou as Mathilde, Gaspard Ulliel as Manech, Dominique Pinon as Sylvain, Chantal Neuwirth as Bénédicte, André Dussollier as Pierre-Marie Rouvières, Ticky Holgado as Germain Pire, Marion Cotillard as Tina Lombardi, Dominique Bettenfeld as Ange Bassignano, Jodie Foster as Elodie Gordes, Jean-Pierre Darroussin as Benjamin Gordes, Denis Lavant as Six-Soux, Rufus as Un Breton, Jérôme Kircher as Bastoche, Denis Lavant as Six Sous, Albert Dupontel as Célestin Poux, Elina Löwensohn as la soeur de Günther, Jean-Claude Dreyfus as Commandant Lavrouye
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