Jean-Pierre Jeunet is in a special category of directors. Leaving aside Alien: Resurrection, which is an anomaly of historic proportions, his films have a very special flavor to them. Developing his craft through Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Jeunet was thrust center-stage with 2001’s Amelie. His films have a unique visual style, but what truly separates him from the herd is the sense in which you can feel him talking to you. A Jeunet film, though delivered with impressive style, and generally by way of wonderful actors, never quite feels like anything that matches the experience of watching a movie. Once the first fifteen minutes or so suck you in, the experience more closely resembles sitting in a pub or parlor listening to someone spin a really great yarn. Much like the work of Giuseppe Tornatore, there is something going on which is much more putting a story into pictures than putting pictures together to make a story.
A Very Long Engagement centers around a young French woman named Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) and her conviction that her fiancée is not really dead, despite reports to the contrary. It is during/after World War I, and said fiancée, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) was sentenced to be thrown into no-man’s land for self-mutilation. Four others met the same fate, for the same reason, and though they were all reported dead, Mathilde comes across some information that leads her to hope… sort of. She sets off on an investigation to discover exactly what happened to those five men after they were sent over the wall of the trenches. Her leads are sketchy, but as she moves from one small connection to the next, she pieces together the lives of all five men on her way to discovering the true fate of Manech.
Solving the mystery of the ‘day in the life’ of the war is interesting enough, and in the end delivers well, but the heart of the matter is the sideways examination of the destruction the war caused. It’s a bold and master stroke, because such an examination met with straight on can hardly avoid becoming preachy and maudlin. These hurdles are only narrowly missed even here, but the effects are mellowed and more sustainable because we only meet with the war’s remnants on the way to some other goal. We couple this sideways approach with the film’s ability to draw us into Mathilde, and allow ourselves to see things through her eyes.
She is a character almost her own embodiment of a sideways approach to things, and as we follow her through her puzzle, we engage a broader picture of humanity. Having lost her parents at an early age, Mathilde is somewhat adrift in her own skin. The world, for her, is a place controlled by the oddest whims of chance, and her inner self is not merely something she doesn’t quite understand, but a person she has not yet met. Her hope is not fueled so much by that great inner connection of love, or even by the scant, meaningless evidence she acquires, but by a certain conviction born in her youth that since nothing makes any sense anyway all things are possible. Manech, in her mind, is as likely to be alive because she finds the right sign of fortune as he is should she find evidence that proves it.
With this combination of characters, events, and exposure to different facets of reality and humanity, at the end of her journey Mathilde has found many things. Maybe what she was looking for, maybe not. But, in the final scene of the film her smile and attitude are precise. She is now possibly unimaginably sad, and yet as happy as she knows how to be, but she has also suddenly, finally been born into a world that makes slightly more sense despite its horrors. And, as she smiles with only half her mouth, and her eyes light up just a little brighter, she suddenly realizes that life is beautiful… or is, at any rate, better than the alternative.
Tautou gives us a real, yet quirky character as only she can, and the progression of the story bobs and weaves around us such that we can only succumb to it. The supporting cast rivals any that has been put together to date, with even the slightest roles delivered with believability and depth. Jodie Foster, on the other hand, while performing well enough, becomes something of a jarring experience to the audience when she suddenly appears. The only negative to the film is that it occasionally dives too deep into its own quirkiness. Characters are at times unnecessarily odd, and repeatedly so, when the film has already convinced us of their oddity and would do better to move on.
Many scenes and themes are managed to perfection, and this is a film that is tackling difficult ideas. One scene (while visiting someone in prison) brings an entire tangent of the film to fruition with what would in any other film play out almost laughably. It is here a poignant dagger to the heart that reveals beautifully not only the surface ideal that revenge never quite pays out, but the more subtle brilliance that we never really know ourselves as well as others do. We put this almost off-hand statement together with the end of the film, and who does and doesn’t know whom, and we begin to view the world with Mathilde’s same quirky wonder.