A Very Long Engagement (2004)
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Starring Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Dominique Pinon, Marion Cotillard, and Jodie Foster
Most North Americans have either never heard of Audrey Tautou, or know her because she appeared in Amelie or The Da Vinci Code. The biggest hurdle is that the majority of her films are French, and I'm well aware that more than 90 percent of people can't stand subtitles. That's a shame, because Tautou is a fantastic actress. She's physically attractive, but her acting contains a depth of emotion that is even more beautiful. It's easy to root for her characters. Just look into those soulful dark eyes and see how much emotion she conveys without saying a word.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet is an extremely quirky director, and his films have an unmistakable style. Think of him as a French version of Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino; at least in terms of humor. Although this film contains more serious subject matter than Amelie, that humor is still there. I usually watch it with a grin on my face and tears in my eyes.
So, what is A Very Long Engagement about? Well, it's set during World War 1, and the first 15 minutes might lead you to believe that it's a war film, but it's actually an epic romance. How many guys have stopped reading already? It's in French and it's a romance! If you're the type of person who can't stand typical romances, don't worry. This film is much more than mere fluff. It has a deep story, with so many interesting characters that you might lose track of what is going on the first time you see it. Just watch what Jeunet does with the character of the postman. Jeunet is perhaps an acquired taste, but I strongly urge you to check out his work if you haven't thus far.
Mathilde (Tautou) is 20, and she's in love with Manech (Ulliel). She developed polio as a small child, and he was the only kid in school who was interested in talking to her. One flashback shows how they met, and how he captured her attention by offering to carry her on his back to the top of a lighthouse. Love comes in many forms, and I often wonder why two people end up together. It can be for all kinds of reasons, but it's clear as we see Mathilde and Manech come to know each other that their relationship is something very special. Unfortunately, it's interrupted when Manech is required to become a soldier. Jeunet doesn't romanticize war at all, so expect a few unpleasant scenes.
The story continues as five soldiers, including Manech, are accused of trying to get out of fighting by deliberately wounding themselves. Rumors reach Mathilde that Manech is dead, but she refuses to believe it. Mathilde suffers a little bit from OCD, and a few scenes are all the more moving because of it.
That's just the set up, and already it's becoming a complicated story. The remainder of the film shows Mathilde's attempts to discover the truth about Manech. Is he still alive? She enlists the help of a private detective to find out what happened.
It's a superb performance from Tautou, and she's ably supported by some of Jeunet's regular actors, including Dominique Pinon, Ticky Holgado, and Jean-Claude Dreyfus. Marion Cotillard shows up as a glamorous assassin, who is intent on avenging the death of her lover. Jodie Foster has a small role, but her story is an important part of the whole, and it's an enjoyable sequence.
It would be wrong of me to review this film without mentioning the wonderful cinematography. Its Oscar nominations for artwork and cinematography were most appropriate. Some of the war scenes are harrowing, but the film is also punctuated by moments of great beauty. The French countryside is one of the stars, and can be breathtaking at times.
A Very Long Engagement is a visceral experience. You'll feel for Mathilde and Manech, and you'll laugh at Jeunet's sense of humor. Some of the best films transport us to a different place, and this is most definitely one of them. I won't reveal the ending, but it worked extremely well for me, and I feel a whole range of emotions every time I see it. I'll always remember the three Ms, the albatross, and my favorite scene as Mathilde tries to beat the car to the bend in the road.
See this film!
Overall score 4.5/5
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