A Very Long Engagement
Sentimentality can be a wonderful attribute of a film, but as easy as it is to deploy it is almost as easy to misuse. Amélie
used it to build a contemporary cinematic Paris out of the white-washing magic of love, and that film's director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, makes a tragic misstep in his follow-up A Very Long Engagement
by giving the overpowering sap of hope the ability to unify a nation’s memory of war.
The film is adapted with a heavy hand that too often betrays its literary source novel by Sébastien Japrisot—for example, an unnecessary narration alternatively describes exactly what is being seen amongst peppering prose-like elaborations which Jeunet chooses not to visualize—and the baroquely cinematic images, a cast deaded by a painfully plain script, and the flair of Japrisot's prose and Jeunet's visual flourish rarely weave into cohesion. The film chronicles the tearful hope and intricate detective work of Mathilde (Audrey Tautou), whose fiancé Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) is MIA in the First World War. Manech is presumed dead by everyone but his sweetheart, who is not so much a living breathing character as she is conduit for a French optimist’s wrenching emotional need to make sense of such an absurd war.
Contradicting the film’s allegiance to Mathilde’s passionate, luck-based outlook on life, the wide-eyed Tautou tracks down her long lost love through a completely rational investigation. For this she employs a detective to track down missing witnesses, and then interviews them herself, attempting a Rashomon
-style narrative of memory revision of an event in the war previously thought understood by its participants. But unlike Kurosawa’s testament to the slipperiness of human perception, Mathilde’s information gradually fits together like a puzzle, and by the end the audience has a unified picture of Manech’s terror-filled experience in the trenches, which leads our heroine to her damaged beau.
It is not Mathilde’s naïve outlook and child-like attachment to her initially clearly dead fiancé that torpedoes Jeunet’s film, which is by measures overlong, choppily structured, and far too reliant on a faulty visual style (a multitude of CGI tableaus, pointlessly ornate crane-shots, and a over-filtered combination of golden tinged nostalgia and dirt-grey horror) rather than on the sadly homogenized acting of its supremely talented cast. What sinks this ship is the very idea that Mathilde’s love, translated to hope, can piece together a definitive representation of World War I. As Mathilde’s exhaustive job as a receiver of several brutal oral histories of war experience labels her as a cipher for understanding the Manech’s story, Manech’s story is thereby the story of the experience of the Great War. With Mathilde’s perseverance, Jeanut and his co-writer Guillaume Laurant give the audience what is suppose to be a narratively clear, emotionally focused, and singularly thematically driven picture of the war. To make nothing of the entirely bland and unrealized story of female homefront suffering, sarcificies, and the women's complicated relations to their menfolk, A Very Long Engagements
’ telling us that hope and love can piece together and “solve” the mystery of the absurdities and horrors of war is a quite probably the most offensively positive, naively presumptive application of sentimentality possible. For a film that tries so hard to visually depict the revolting, dehumanizing experience of war and the strength of the heart laying await at home, it comes as a complete surprise that the resulting film is a disservice to the unexplainable experience millions of people felt during this, or any war.