As the world trains its gaze upon desolate fields and cemeteries in Belgium and France where, a century ago, modernity’s first great conflict raged, one film stands out among the many works of art which have since put a human face on the complexities of World War I and reanimated its landscapes for subsequent generations. That film is Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de finançailles, 2004), based on the novel of the same name by Sébastien Japrisot. The book looms large for its intricacy and vivid characters, assuredly representing a challenge for any but the most confident of directors. It is therefore fortunate that Jeunet chose to take on this project: Though an adaptation, Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement stands on its own. Using the hallmarks of an aesthetic one ventures to call authorial, Jeunet, the director known to American audiences for Amélie, faithfully renders on film the plot and characters that so moved readers of Japrisot’s modern classic, yet imbues the events with his own particular brand of dark humor, eccentric detail, and overarching hope pried from the jaws of a gritty, though nostalgia-tinged realism.
Admirers of the book will be glad to see that the film preserves some of the novel’s most exquisite lines through a voice-over narration that, employed only twice, at the beginning and the end, does not obtrude. The sentences, “Since the death notice, she stubbornly holds on to her intuition like to a flimsy wire . . . . If that wire doesn’t lead her to her lover, never mind, she can always use it as a noose,” left me breathless when I first read them (albeit in a slightly different form, undoubtedly owing to necessary abridgement and differences in translation). In the film these lines set the tone by serving to transition from the appallingly graphic opening scenes in the trenches, to our first glimpse of Mathilde (Audrey Tautou): a sort of Penelope figure whose quest to find her fiancé elevates the story beyond typical war-film tropes. Thus a justified cynicism is quite brilliantly juxtaposed with a timeless tale of love conquering iniquity, and the image of the wire concretizes that delicate line between hope and despair.
Even more wonderful was Jeunet’s decision to present this narration in a woman’s voice. For despite the wartime setting, the violence of the scenes and the many political machinations taking place largely in a man’s world, this is a film about women: Mathilde’s search may be foregrounded, but it is threaded together with the stories of several other women, each of whom maneuvers through the horrors of war in her own, deeply affecting way. Together these women weave from out of the senseless violence a tapestry of human redemption.
One might characterize this story as a mystery, romance, and historical fiction all rolled into one, which simultaneously transcends the limitations of each of these genres to unflinchingly depict the foibles and passions of human nature. The decidedly non-linear plot centers upon the young love of Mathilde and Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), two Breton youths, whose engagement is interrupted by the outbreak of World War I and Manech’s subsequent death sentence for self-mutilation. Manech is only one of five soldiers whom fate brings together through a common injury to the hand, and whether or not the disfiguring was intentional — viewers are treated, through flashback, to explanations of how each soldier sustained the wound — its result is that all five men fall under the unforgiving wheels of fate, driven forward, at all costs, by policy. (Indeed, the narrative is incisive in showing war to be the means by which rank-and-file bureaucracy compounds and magnifies human weaknesses.) But when the five French soldiers, now enemies of their own government, arrive at the end of the long prisoners’ march, a trench called Bingo Crépuscule, the course of events slips beyond their wardens’ control and chaos ensues, leaving each man’s destiny a mystery. Mathilde wants to believe, against all odds, that Manech survived, though all her acquaintances attempt to persuade her to give up hope. She therefore embarks on a dogged search for her childhood sweetheart.
To explain the plot further would not only spoil the resolution of this rather engrossing mystery but would confuse, for the narrative necessitates great leaps back and forth in both time and place, demanding close attention from its viewers. In both scope and effect this is arguably Jeunet’s most ambitious film to date (not counting Alien: Resurrection, which would seem to represent a curious aberration in an otherwise brilliant oeuvre). Nevertheless, the sublime cinematography and inspired performances from frequent Jeunet collaborators like Dominique Pinon (playing Mathilde’s wonderfully quirky uncle, Sylvain), as well as other talented actors such as Jodie Foster (proving her versatility with a sizeable role delivered in fluent French), and Marion Cotillard (in a masterful performance as Corsican prostitute Gina Lombardi, whose love for her condemned soldier leads her bravely to the guillotine), make us forget the intellectual effort we are investing in this difficult film.
One standout scene takes place in a Dordogne wheat field. In an epic wide shot filmed using Jeunet’s trademark yellow cast, that Midas touch used to great effect in all his films (while, in contrast, the trench scenes are tinted a flat blue-brown), the camera captures the stunning sweep of wind through the feathery wheat, culminating in a delicate swirl of harvested grains from off the back of a cart. This shot would seem to convey the insignificance of individual human desires against larger questions of fate and the overwhelming pull of history’s course. And that is precisely what the story seeks to do, to challenge fate in the guise of Mathilde, a slight, seemingly frail young woman, left without the use of a leg after her bout with polio, who in her quest emerges strong and defiant. What are we to make of the individual destinies of the film’s characters, taken together? Can we in our era hope to overcome the dehumanizing violence and despair of war? It is a timely question, when on the centenary of World War I, we look back as well as forward. And A Very Long Engagement is just the sort of powerful film to remain with us as we continue our interrogation.