A Very Long Engagement
During wartime, art about war can play an important role. It can coax us into contemplation and dialogue about the ethics of violent conflict. It may remind us of the lessons we can learn from the past. Sometimes it offers comfort and even hope during a time of fear, uncertainty, and loss. You could probably name a few favorites with such redeeming qualities: David O. Russell's Three Kings, Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, Edward Zwick's Glory, and Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory. Kubrick's later work, Full Metal Jacket, and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, are sobering portrayals of the madness that war can unleash.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement, based on a novel by Sebastien Japrisot, aspires to be a meaningful war film about holding on to hope against all odds. Unfortunately, it assaults our senses with imagery so intense, subplots so disposable, and tones so different that we're bewildered instead of moved, overly entertained instead of enlightened.
Here's the premise: In the wake of World War I, Mathilde, a beautiful young woman crippled by polio, longs to know the fate of Manech, her fiancé who went off to fight for France. Manech, convicted of self-mutilation on the front lines, was punished alongside four other condemned soldiers. He was ordered to make himself an easy target for the enemy, and he never returned. Conflicting reports about his fate have thrown fuel on the feeble fire of Mathilde's hopes. She will stop at nothing to find out if Manech survived.
If you're feeling any déjà vu, that's because the premise is similar to another epic that arrived at this time last year—Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain. But it would be better to describe A Very Long Engagement as a collision of Minghella's melodrama, Jeunet's 2001 French blockbuster Amelie, and Saving Private Ryan. Watching it feels like going to an amusement park in the middle of a war zone while a battle is underway. We're strapped into dozens of dizzying rides, some of which are sickening and terrifying, others that are goofy and strange, and every few minutes our faces are shoved into the grisly horrors of war. There's no reason that a war film cannot blend comedy and tragedy. But Jeunet is in such a rush that he fails to give us enough opportunities to catch our breath, to consider what's happening, or to care about the characters.
Engagement, one of only a few films to examine the Great War of 1914-1918, captures battlefield bloodshed in way that will test your nerves, your stomach, and your patience. Bayonet-impalements, shattered heads, bomb-blasted showers of body parts, corpses used as shields against bullets—some moviegoers should steer clear of such sights. In a parallel narrative, an assassin performs brief but severe executions, one involving shards of glass that will make even the toughest viewer wince in dismay. The bloody chaos is interspersed with tangents of Jeunet's famously comical cleverness and fairy-tale whimsy. One minute, we're watching French troops charge unshielded into machine gun fire, the other we're watching Mathilde have sensual daydreams about her missing boyfriend, or we're chuckling at the way her bicycling mailman tumbles onto her doorstep.