Wholly staggering and wildly undervalued, the 2004 film A Very Long Engagement is a masterpiece of storytelling and filmmaking, representing the greatest and grandest achievement yet for visionary filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet. And I feel that’s saying something, as this is the man responsible for Amelie, City of Lost Children, and Delicatessen, to name just a few (the latter two being collaborations with Marc Caro). Melding the bubbly romantic whimsy of Amelie to the gritty and grimy battlefields of WWI, this is a true genre-bender, a war film with a bleeding, aching heart, boasting a finale that’s incredibly poignant without being overly sentimental; it never fails to devastate during the final moments. It’s utterly criminal that this massive piece of work was lost during the holiday movie blitz that year, and it’s a joke that the film is only available on DVD in America or as a Region B Blu-ray (thankfully, I have a Region Free player). Hollywood has long held a fascination with all aspects of WWII, with modern WWI movies in relative short supply by comparison; every future film to explore the rigors of trench war fare should be compared to this one. Jeunet co-adapted the storybook-style screenplay with Guillaume Laurant from the original novel by Sébastien Japrisot, and he brought his handmade style to every facet of this enormous and elaborate production. I adored his idea to shoot some of the flashback scenes in Academy Ratio 1.33:1 black and white, which gives those beats the sense of archival footage, when in reality, they feel like their own short film embedded into this grand canvass of people, places, and things.
The busy narrative of A Very Long Engagement pivots on five French soldiers, all of whom have been convicted of self-mutilation in an effort to ditch their remaining service time and be sent home and away from the horrors of battle. One of these soldiers, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), is engaged to his childhood sweetheart (Audrey Tautou), and all he can do to mentally survive is continually think of her and how strong the love is between the two of them. Sent to “no-man’s land” (the highly dangerous and deadly area of land in between the French and German lines), Manech and the other solider-prisoners meet their individual fates in ways that I won’t dare spoil, but I will allow that the tale is told in slight Rashomon style, with various versions of the events explained to Mathilde as she works to put the mysterious pieces together of her future husband’s whereabouts. She sets off on an epic quest with the help of a private investigator to collect information and meet the wives of the other four soldiers that Manech was condemned to death with, leading her to some truly dark and upsetting revelations, but despite all of the sadness around her, she never gives up hope in finding the one person she loves the most. There’s a poet’s sense of the fragility of life on display all throughout this carefully mounted film, and the intricate storyline engrosses the audience immediately from the start, with the startlingly beautiful images washing over the viewer like a suffocating lather of exquisiteness. Bruno Delbonnel’s bronze-tinted and utterly ravishing cinematography, is, simply put, some of the best I’ve ever seen on a big screen, small screen, whatever size screen. Each shot is post-card ready, boasting immaculate vistas, raw and immediate battle footage with lots of graphic carnage, a sumptuous color palette, and grand and sweeping camera movements that defy logic and give you perspectives that you’d never expect. A late set-piece involving an exploding hydrogen blimp inside of a makeshift triage center is horrifying and beyond comprehension, and the various sequences of bloody combat are handled with extreme technical finesse without ever sacrificing grit and muck.
The performances are all uniformly excellent, with the appropriate supporting actors hitting their moments of expertly placed comedy in perfect ways to lighten the dramatic load, while Tautou and Ulliel are left to do the majority of the heavy emoting and dramatic lifting, and both are more than up to the task. Exuding a palpable chemistry and a deep longing for each other that’s wonderful and heartrending, the two of them were a perfect match. Marion Cotillard and Jodie Foster both have knock-out extended cameos, especially Foster, and Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon makes his customary appearance. A Very Long Engagement would only be nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Production Design at the Oscars (rightfully so, but predictably, it won neither award; The Aviator took both), which seems massively shortsighted, but because this film wasn’t a true Hollywood production, it was up to the French government to select their country’s film for Academy consideration, and they didn’t go to bat for A Very Long Engagement. I’ll never understand why. The film grossed $70 million theatrically worldwide, with only $6.5 million of that total coming from United States ticket buyers, a fact that makes me sick to my stomach. This is truly epic filmmaking of the highest order, made by an artist who is totally in love with all of the visual and narrative possibilities of the filmic form, and I’ll always be blown away by the handcrafted feel that A Very Long Engagement possesses. It’s so enormous yet at the same time feels so intimate and fragile, an attribute that’s incredibly hard to find.