Laura CliffordFive French soldiers are sentenced to death for having shot themselves in the hand in order to escape the years-long carnage the trenches in the Great War. They are sent, unarmed, out into No Man’s Land where savage gunfire will surely kill them all. But, Mathilde (Audrey Tautou), the fiancée of one of the men, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), long after the deadly incident, still believes he is alive and begins her journey of discovery and unrequited love in “A Very Long Engagement.”
Helmer and co-writer Jean-Pierre Jeunot, with Guillaume Laurent adapting Sebastien Japrisot’s novel, has constructed a film that is drama, romance, detective story, war movie and personal journey in a well-crafted, complex and innovative work, too.
The five convicted soldiers are led through the muddy trenches to their abandonment on the bullet-riddled front where imminent death awaits them. The harsh penalty for the crime of self-inflicted hand wound, deserved or not, is being done as a public example to stop the practice among the beleaguered soldiers on the hostile front. The story of each of the men is told to give us a back-story of their lives and passions, with the emphasis on the romantic tale between Mathilde and Manech.
Mathilde suffered polio as a child, leaving her with a lame leg that she uses to garner sympathy and favors in her quest to find the truth about Manech. Logic dictates that he, along with the other four condemned men, must have suffered horrible, certain deaths. But, in her heart, Mathilde knows her beloved is alive and begins a detective hunt that will span years and test the unflinching resolve of the handicapped beauty. The multi-layered tale keeps Tautou’s perf from taking prominence but the actress does a solid, convincing job portraying a woman whose faith and belief is unquestioned – in a continuous bit of serendipity she constantly tests fate with such challenges as if an apple peel remains an unbroken chain then Menach will come home. It’s a sweet, charming device that is handled with tender care.
Jeunet’s work is on an epic scale and not since Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 World War One classic, “Paths Of Glory,” have the horrors of trench warfare been so believably depicted. Kubrick, with his painstaking attention to detail, even then, recreated the trenches from the original military specifications to perfect detail – except to widen the trench from 4 to 6 feet to accommodate the fast-moving camera crews. Jeunot puts the same care into his recreation of the deadly locations and adds the benefit of CGI to bring a fatal realism to the battle sequences. You can feel the impact of the bullets as the faceless German machine gunners mow down the French soldier on the disastrous attack.
This is a Rashomon type of story as Jeunot tells “A Very Long Engagement,” mainly through the investigation by Mathilde and her correspondence to everyone and anyone involved at the condemned men’s end. She gets conflicting stories as evidence, different people’s memories and point of view would make Mathilde believe that Manech is dead. Her belief keeps her going.
A Very Long Engagement” is a complicated, beautifully rendered film that maintains its love story in the face of the horrors of trench warfare. It is a true ensemble film with many fine performances, including Tautou, giving full dimension to the characters, however brief. There are many dynamic characterizations and it required a second viewing to for me fully appreciate the film’s complexity and craftsmanship. I give it an A-.
Laura gives "A Very Long Engagement" an B+.
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