After the war, Manech’s fiancée Mathilde (Audrey Tautou), to whom he became engaged just before he was called up and who has never believed the official account of his death, engages a lawyer and a private detective – before, frustrated with their lack of progress, taking up the investigation herself – to discover the truth.
As she uncovers information about the other four men, she crosses paths with the vengeful Tina (Marion Cotillard), herself betrothed to one of the accused, and makes a discovery that both shocks her and redoubles her faith that Manech is alive.
As Bryce commented in his article on ‘Foutaises’, there are two schools of thought regarding Jeunet. One has it that he’s a genius; the other that it was his former partner Marc Caro who brought the innovative and creative brilliance while Jeunet was an adept frontman who was good with actors. ‘Amelie’ provides an emphatic and pretty much inarguable “not guilty” plea. ‘A Very Long Engagement’, however, goes some way to establishing a case for the prosecution.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a bad film. In fact, it’s handsomely mounted, beautifully designed, suitably sweeping in scope and length (at 127 minutes, it’s Jeunet’s longest outing) and never less than watchable. Which is part of the problem. It falls into the trap that most romantic dramas set against a backdrop of war fall into during the opening credits and never get out of. The phrase “romantic drama set against a backdrop of war” ought to tell you all you need to know.
It’s Oscar-bait. Or Cesar-bait. Whichever, it’s lush and beautiful and has a handful of scenes which comment on The Futility Of War. These are obligatorily juxtaposed with a handful scenes which swooningly affirm that Love Conquers Everything. The period recreation is lovingly nostalgic. The production design makes your average box of Belgian chocolates look diabetic. It’s something to be thankful for, amidst all this, that David Lynch regular Angelo Badalamenti composed the score and not John Williams!
All told, ‘A Very Long Engagement’ comes on like some lost David Lean epic, only in French and clocking it at less than four hours. And I reiterate: it’s neither badly done nor a waste of two hours. It’s just a very ordinary piece of work from a director renowned for his inspired quirkiness. True, there are plenty of idiosyncratic touches (Mathilde communicating her depressive moods by monotonously playing one note on the tuba; a running joke about a postman disturbing a gravelled pathway; a couple of bizarro no-man’s-land scenes that play more like ‘Abbott and Costello’ than ‘King and Country’) that remind you who’s calling the shots, but on the whole Jeunet plays it safe with the material.
Which, to be fair, was kind of inevitable; with a budget of over $56 million, the production required the backing of Warner Bros. It was never going to be ‘The City of Lost Children Part II’.
That ‘A Very Long Engagement’ would emerge as a Jeunet project was also kind of inevitable; after ‘Amelie’, a second collaboration between Jeunet and Tautou was a given. Part of the attraction (and equally part of the problem) is how different a character Mathilde is from Amelie. And, yes, Tautou gets to demonstrate her range. But Mathilde – her leg crippled from polio, her brow etched with a frown of determination, her resolve steely – isn’t the most captivating heroine to spend two hours with. Nor does the architecture of the narrative give her much to do but receive letters, make phone calls, stare moodily out of the window during train journeys and badger supporting characters (who are invariably more interesting) with a barrage of expositionally-designed questions.
The film massively perks up (as well as shooting itself in the foot eminently more successfully than Manech or any of his comrades in arms) with the introduction of Tina. As portrayed by the dangerously desirable Cotillard, Tina is pro-active where Mathilde is re-active; seducer where Mathilde is sleuth. She’s the thinking man’s femme fatale, the vamp de luxe, the good time girl gone bad and with good reason. ‘A Very Long Engagement’ smoulders into life whenever she’s on screen.
“We’ve been conducting the same investigation,” Tina tells Mathilde during her final scene (which comes about two thirds of the way through the movie and marks the point at which things settle back into inertia) and the thought springs unstoppably into your mind: yeah – and the filmmakers have been telling the wrong story!
Am I being too hard on ‘A Very Long Engagement’? Maybe so; I seem to have spent 800 words carping about a film I actually quite like. It’s just very difficult to shake the fact that Jeunet’s serving up safe, generic, inoffensive Sunday afternoon TV when – even in the most whimsically romantic moments of ‘Amelie’ – his talent has always been better applied to the subversive.