It never struck me before that the words for “an agreement to marry” and “a military battle” are the same: “engagement.” Seems like a particularly French juxtaposition to make, turning love into a battle and war into a romance, but then if, as seems to be the general consensus, all’s fair in either, maybe it’s just a particularly human quirk.
Perhaps only the French, though, who suffered so grievously as a nation in the Great War, could get away with A Very Long Engagement, a labor of love for Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, based upon Sébastien Japrisot’s novel. Here we have a film that combines a particularly Gallic comic sensibility — replete with oddball characters among which even the fiercest, hardbitten soldiers and such, have a delicate but earthy charm — with the horrific nightmare of the trenches, a film about what is arguably the worst war ever that manages to leave you not despairing at the cruelty of humankind but inspired by the hopeless hope that allowed those caught up in it to survive. Maybe the fact that wonderful weirdness and ruthless barbarism can coexist in us as a species is our tragedy, but that they can coexist in a film like this one without lessening the appeal of the first or the enormity of the second is a triumph to be savoured. If art ever has a chance of saving the world, it’ll be through exploring the great human dichotomies like A Very Long Engagment does.
Oh, but that makes the film sound so ponderous and self-important, and it’s nothing of the kind. It’s a small, lovely story amidst an enormous one, a romantic detective mystery driven by one tiny young woman with a strength that is belied by her crippledness. It’s also enchantingly convoluted, jumping back and forth in time and featuring a cast of characters so sprawling you’ll be tempted to ask for a cheatsheet to keep track of them. You won’t need it — everything is filtered through the quick but dreamy Mathilde, and if you’re along with her for the ride, you’ll be fine. But be warned: If the gamine spunk of Amelie‘s Audrey Tautou is not your cup of tea, you’ll have to look elsewhere for your great art that’ll save the world, because this is two-plus hours of Tautou and her smile that seems to hide a secret and her tomboy resoluteness and her big brown puppy-dog eyes. I think she’s adorable, but I know the world is not unanimously with me on this one.
So, Mathilde, in 1920, is living with her aunt and uncle near a seaside fishing town when she receives word that her beloved, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel: Brotherhood of the Wolf), may not have been dead lo these three years after all. Irony of ironies: condemned as a traitor and a deserter for shooting his own hand off in an attempt to be excused from the war, he is sentenced to execution, the method of which is to be sent over the top of the trenches to be picked off by German snipers… the very thing he was hoping to avoid, the very sentence of which indicates that the French commanders know exactly how suicidal any trip over the top is. But Manech may have survived this sentence after all.
And Mathilde is off on her adventure, stumbling around France on her polio-lamed legs, justifying her quite irrational hope however she can — while peeling an apple, she tells herself that if the peel does not break, that means Manech is still alive — while running down the clues in the box of memorabilia given her by one of the survivors of Manech’s trench, the ridiculously named (as everyone she encounters admits) Bingo Crépuscule. Red mittens and a pair of German boots stolen from a corpse and the mysterious letters “MMM”… these are the running threads through her quest, the strange little things that let her cling to hope in the face of absurd odds. Her hope becomes so fantastical, actually, that we start to wonder whether all we’re seeing through her eyes is real: Did the veteran with the artificial wooden arm really use its almost robotic articulation to crack nuts? Did the whore — the ladyfriend of one of the other men condemned along with Manech, who is mirroring Mathilde’s investigation — really disguise herself as a nun? Or are these the imaginings of a clever, sad girl indulging in some of the heartbreaking desperation she finds in the stories of those she encounters in her travels?
The little mysteries of A Very Long Engagement aren’t all resolved in the end, and that’s just fine. And neither are the bigger mysteries, the whys and wherefores of love and war… but perhaps there are no answers to be found no matter how hard we seek them.