A Very Long Engagement, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet in 2004, is the second movie presented as part of the French Film Festival at Images Cinema. Organized by Professor of French Brian Martin, the festival serves as a commemoration of World War I.
Based on a book of the same name, the film depicts the story of Mathilde, played by Audrey Tadou, a young woman from Brittany desperately searching for her fiancé, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), who is presumed to have died on the battlefield. She follows the lead of five soldiers sentenced to death for desertion and tries to find her lover by reconstructing their stories. Each of the men come from different parts of France, representing the diverse backgrounds of soldiers in the French army.
Mathilde enlists help in her quest, first from her aunt (Chantal Neuwirth) and uncle (Dominique Pinon), with whom she has lived since her parents’ death in an accident. In a way, the couple is a caricature of a stereotypical French family; the aunt believes food is the root of all problems, and the uncle jumps at the thought of his niece’s marriage. In spite of these quirks, they care for her as if she were their own daughter. Her family’s lawyer, another accomplice helps Mathilde rise through the ranks of the French military to uncover information. There is also some comic relief in the form of Germain Pire, a private detective that Mathilde hires, whose last name translates as “worse.”
In addition to the brilliant storyline, the film also works as a historical depiction of the war. World War I was one of the most devastating wars of the 20th century, ending in a climate of trauma; “never again,” said the people. The “poilus,” or “hairy,” lived in deplorable conditions in the trenches, surviving with meager rations of food in the mud, cold and rain. Everyday was a new fight, living in fear and trying to avoid the attacks of obus, mustard gas, tanks and machine guns. The movie depicts all of this, showing in detail the horrors of the living conditions and the desperation that pushed many soldiers to self-mutilate in the hopes of being sent home.
Aside from brilliantly depicting the horror of the battlefield, the movie stands out for the importance and force of its female characters. Mathilde displays an impressive drive and intellect to find Manech. Despite her debilitating limp, she travels through France, uncovering mysteries and finding the people that will help her piece together the puzzle. One striking scene takes place when she steals a top-secret list from the French army’s archives, containing the name of the soldiers condemned for treason. Standing on her wheelchair while the guards are right above her, she makes the audience hold its breath as she reaches high up for the file and hides it in the handle of her chair.
Mathilde touches us with her humanity. Superstitiously, she looks for signs of the survival of her lover; “If I can run to the end of the road before the car passes by, Manech is alive,” she says in one of the most heartbreaking lines in the film. Her candor is in sharp contrast with the incredible willpower and strength that she portrays throughout the movie.
Women throughout the film are heroines, fighting for the men they love, and they lead the story through their quests for them. Marion Cotillard plays Tina Lombardi, a prostitute and the lover of one of the five condemned soldiers. She is striking in her role of the “officer killer” who gets revenge by murdering anyone who was involved in the death of her lover. For this role, Cotillard received a prestigious French award, the César for Best Supporting Actress, with a total of nine minutes of screen time.
The ending, beautiful in its simplicity, shows the final reunion of Mathilde and Manech. He suffers from memory loss and does not remember their relationship. Unlike the expected epic end, Mathilde just sits next to him, watching him carve wood. The striking power of this scene, where emotions replace action, leaves the audience in a state of awe.
The film, as captivating as a thriller but also hopelessly romantic, is typically French. The cast is exciting, from the two iconic actresses to the young and promising Gaspard Ulliel to Michel Vuillermoz, comedian of the “Comédie Française.” It truly fascinates the audience for an entire two hours and 15 minutes.