Jean-Pierre Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement is what a sweeping epic of love and war should be: beautiful and ugly all at once, dramatic on a grand, yet thoroughly calibrated, scale. One need look no further than his Jeunet's starry-eyed lovers, Mathilde (Audrey Tatou) and Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), who meet as childhood friends just as the limping Mathilde survives polio, but are separated as young adult lovers by the demands of the French army during World War I. Mathilde has learned that Manech and four comrades each tried to get out of combat with self-inflicted hand wounds and were sent to a grisly form of execution in the notorious No Man's Land. She doesn't believe the sketchy reports and searches for her lover.
Through voice-over, love letters and flashbacks, we learn the back story of their affair, the details of Manech's combat service, and more importantly how a woman can take her blind faith and put it into action. After all, the movie's title is a dual pun, marking the time between separation and reunion, war and peace.
Throughout the film, Jeunet (working with co-screenwriter Gillaume Laurant) juxtaposes the effect of war on Mathilde with the effect of love on Manech. War has invaded the serenity of the vigilant Mathilde's Breton farm that she shares with her quirky surrogate parents, uncle Sylvain (Dominique Pinon) and aunt Benedicte (Chantal Neuwirth). In flashback form, we see how the fragile Manech is forever carving the initials "MMM" into whatever is available, and at his own peril. We know he's engraving his faith in Mathilde, and we know it just might be killing him -- literally.
Jeunet's camera, courtesy his collaboration with Amelie cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, sees everything and goes everywhere with unmatched fearlessness. Think of Steven Spielberg's unprecedented Normandy invasion scene to open Saving Private Ryan, which virtually drowns in its verité portentousness. Here, Jeunet serves as a sort of blood poet; his battle scenes are gruesome but strangely vivid, with bullets whizzing by as almost orange lasers, soldiers charging as if in a dancing death march, profiles of faces framed half-deep in lumpy mud. There is horror, yes, but a certain kind of visual beauty remains.
Jeunet, who ever since 1991's Delicatessen has been fascinated by image and imagery, doesn't stop there. He's in love with beauty in all its many forms and takes his camera to the cliffs of Corsica, the hills of the French countryside and the streets of Paris. He shoots his interiors in shades of gold, yellow and brown for a sepia-toned glow of nostalgia. This was a most particular epoch in European history, and Jeunet wants the viewer to experience it as he saw it in his research as he adapted Sebastien Japrisot's novel.
Nor does Jeunet stray from the idiosyncrasies that have marked his previous work. He unburdens the story through lighthearted moments and oddball characters who brighten the mood at every other turn, whether it's a flatulent dog, a postman who prides himself on grand entrances, or a private eye who just may be as good as he boasts.
Audrey Tatou is another story altogether. In her, Jeunet may have found his muse. Tatou has the serenity of Juliette Binoche with the fire of Julia Roberts, and somehow Jeunet has tapped into both of these strengths. We saw flashes of this in their first collaboration, Amelie, though some cringed at her overt kookiness. Stephen Frears brought out that determination in 2002's Dirty Pretty Things, but here is the complete package. Again Jeunet's camera soars in framing Tatou's simple beauty, capturing her in states of heightened passion and blissful repose.
Working together, Tatou and Jeunet create a story of love and war told through the prism of a mystery -- aren't both love and war two of life's great mysteries? When Mathilde learns that Manech and his four comrades have been sent over their trench embankment and into No Man's Land (where, if still alive, they must answer roll call each morning), she begins her search for her love. But soon she morphs from lover to detective, for the key to finding Manech (dead or alive) lies in solving the respective mysteries behind the deaths of the other four. So this becomes an investigation on many levels. She meets the prostitute Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard), who has spent the same period tracking down the killers of her pimp boyfriend Ange (Dominique Bettenfield), one of the five condemned. In a way, Tina tells her, they have both been on a mission -- for Mathilde, one of discovery; for Tina, one of revenge. Jeunet spent a decade trying to set this project in motion, and he insists it could not have happened without Tatou in place as Mathilde. Once he cast her in Amelie, he says, he knew he had his star. Here's to his decade of growth as a filmmaker; Jeunet has come a long way from Delicatessen and has shown how an epic love story set against the backdrop of war should be done.
- Detective story: Mathilde (Audrey Tatou) vigilantly searches for her missing lover in Jean-Pierrre Jeunet's excellent film, A Very Long Engagement.