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 ...