A Very Long Engagement

A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de fiançialles), directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, is based on the 1994 novel by Sébastien Japrisot. The movie begins on January 6, 1917, when five French soldiers who have been condemned to death for apparent acts of self-mutilation are sent to the front line and ordered into the no-man’s-land between French and German troops; that is, as lambs for the slaughter. One of the five, Manech (played by Gaspard Ulliel), is betrothed to Mathilde (played by Audrey Tautou). Later, flashbacks recount how the two were childhood sweethearts who had pledged to marry when they came of age. Despite a report that Manech has died at the front, Mathilde holds fast to the belief that he is alive. Born in 1900, an accident caused the death of her parents at the age of three; in 1905, she contracted polio and has walked with a limp ever since. Mathilde, hence, demonstrates that she can overcome adversity by maintaining hope, and she is not about to abandon her dream of someday marrying Manech. When the film shifts to 1920, her fervent hope that Manech is alive receives support in the form of a letter from a Lt. Esperanza (played by Jean-Pierre Becker), who accompanied the five into the trench in the Somme known as Bingo Crépuscule. Esperanza, though dying, wants Mathilde to know that Manech survived at least the first night beyond the trench. Accordingly, she hires Germain Pire (played by Ticky Holgado), a private detective in Paris, to assist her effort to track down her boyfriend. However, Mathilde still does much of the detective work, which consists of trying to locate the other four men, as well as those who were in the unit at the front from which the five were dispatched to almost certain death. As she interviews each man who might have knowledge of Manech in many locations throughout France, she uncovers more than she had anticipated. Some leads are false; others turn up surprising images of the war. For example, French President Henri Poincaré had already pardoned all five men for their efforts to be discharged from the military by injuring themselves, so the person responsible for their fate is the commander in the trenches who tears up the notification of their pardon and spitefully issues the order to eject them from the trench. While Mathilde searches for Manech, she learns that several of those whom she seeks have been murdered. A prostitute, Tina Lombardi (played by Marion Cotillard), whose Corsican pimp was one of the five, has decided to kill all those responsible for his death; for her crimes, she is arrested and condemned to death. Before her execution, Mathilde interviews her to find out more details. She eventually learns that at least one of the five, unaware of the pardon, survived but exchanged dogtags so as to avoid being rounded up for execution in accordance with the original sentence. However, Manech has had amnesia from that fateful trauma in 1917. When the film ends, she has located her boyfriend, but whether she can reawaken his memory of her is left to the imagination of filmviewers as they leave the cinema, though the title supplies a telling clue. Touted in the movie’s trailer as an anti-war film, A Very Long Engagement has been nominated by the Political Film Society as best film to raise consciousness about the idiocy of war and the superiority of peaceful methods for resolving conflicts. MH