I just recently watched this film again for the second time and was just as impressed as I was at first viewing. It is a fascination combination of a fantasy, a love story, a mystery, and a condemnation of war sprinkled with touches of dark humor. The story begins in the trenches of WWI where five soldiers who have instigated their own wounds are being taken to a place where, for their punishment, they are to be forced into the no man’s land between the French and German lines. After a number of days, it is reported that all five have been killed.
The viewer is given short background stories on each of the five men, but the one who is to be the center of the film is the story of Mathilde and Manech. Manech is a youth of just seventeen who has been devastated by his experiences in the trenches. He longs to return to Mathilde, so he raises his hand holding a lit cigarette above the edge of the trench whereupon it is immediately shot by a German sharpshooter. This “self mutilation” is considered an act of treason and leads him to be forced into the no man’s land with the four other soldiers.
The story shifts to 1920. Three years have passed, but Mathilde will not accept the reported death of Manech. She begins a quest to find all of the facts relating to the incident for she believes in her heart that her lover is still alive. Mathilde discovers clues leading her to conclude that Manech is, indeed, alive. Thus begins an intriguing mystery and search for the truth.
There are a number of elements that make this an excellent film, but the characters have to be at the front of the line. A Very Long Engagement is filled with a wide variety of fascinating characters both comic and tragic. Mathilde is by far the most unique, but she is supported by a cornucopia of unusual personages all the way from family members to a quirky private investigator to the postman who thrives upon the destruction of the gravel walkway to Mathilde’s house. All of these characters are gelled into the mystery and tragedy of the tale to keep the viewer glued to the screen.
Mathilde is played by Audrey Tautou, probably best known to American audiences by her performance in Amélie. She has a wonderful face and projects a hypnotic demeanor that makes her perfect for the part as Mathilde seems to be part human and part fairy.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the photography of the film. Each scene - whether it be on the battleground or in a beautiful field of flowers - is a work of art. The art is realistic but not too realistic and fully supports the somewhat surreal vision of the entire film.
I hardily recommend A Very Long Engagement for your viewing pleasure and guarantee you will be extremely pleased.