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Rain pours in the background, grim music plays and names flash across a dimly lit screen.
A typical credit sequence for a war movie? Maybe. The newest entertainment from French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose most famous project, Amelie, told the story of a young Parisian woman who decided to perform random acts of kindness? Seemingly impossible, but true. Viewers expecting A Very Long Engagement to deliver a similarly light, feel-good experience might quickly have their spirits (and, perhaps, their hankies) dampened by the somber opening scene.
But not to fear: Yes, Engagement is more serious and more frightening than its predecessor. But at its heart is the same ingenious style, flawless storytelling and message of hope amidst despair.
It is just after World War I, and a young woman named Mathilde (Amelie pixie Audrey Tautou) discovers her soldier fiancée, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), has been sentenced to death for self-mutilation. Rather than being executed, Manech and his codefendants were sent by their commanding officer out of their trench to face certain death during a battle with the Germans.
Everyone Mathilde knows tells her to move on, to accept his death. But she is connected to him; she is sure she would know, somehow, if he were dead. They have grown up together, spent all their time with each other until Manech went to war. She is sure he is alive. And with resolve and conviction, she sets out to learn his fate.
The film is essentially a complex mystery. On one level, it is simply a detective story; she is putting together a long series of clues together to find out what has happened. But it is also an investigation into how Mathilde’s instinct can be at once so certain and, at least seemingly, so wrong. And, finally, it is an exploration of her character. Perhaps the greatest suspense in the movie comes from wondering how much longer Mathilde—so resolute, yet so fragile—can survive her search.
Orphaned and stricken by a crippling illness early in her childhood, Mathilde, beautifully played by Tautou, is too old and too wise and has seen too much pain for her years. She is also remarkably well acquainted with death, often quietly, quickly repeating to herself, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Engagement is told in the style of Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill, Vol. 1, with short vignettes arranged without regard to chronological order. Though they often focus only on Mathilde, allowing the audience to share her discoveries, thoughts and feelings, the point of view occasionally changes to keep viewers on their toes and broaden the thematic perspective.
Engagement shares with Tarantino’s work an intense, painful depiction of graphic violence: early on, each of the five men is shown wounding himself in hopes of going home—they shoot themselves in the hand and cry out, grab onto the barrels of hot machine guns and writhe in pain. But here, it serves a different purpose: rather than extending the narrative, it gives it greater meaning. Under its influence, characters are humanized, and actions which might otherwise seem horrible or disgusting become understandable.
The absurdity and destructiveness of war are on full display here, stripped of facile notions of patriotism and honor. Sides and nations seem immaterial: the French officers often act against their own troops, even shooting one of their own men, and, as shown in Jodie Foster’s brilliant portrayal of a German woman who aids Mathilde in her search, everyone seems to resent the idea of battle far more than they do their supposed enemy.
This is not an easy movie to watch: it is long, it is painful, it is often confusing, it is a battle in itself. But viewers willing to endure it will be richly rewarded with a clearer, truer picture not only of the reality of war, but also of the reality of love.
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