A merciless view of the war carnage, both physical and mental.
War is hell, and so is love for that matter. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has again joined with Audrey Tautou as Mathilde, a young lover of a young man, Manech, condemned to death for self-mutilation in WWI, who in 1920 is doggedly pursued by a Mathilde determined to find him. Can you feel already the lost love motif kissing the horrors of war theme? You are right, but wrong if you think A Very Long Engagement is sentimentalized as only the French can do; it is a merciless view of the war carnage, both physical and mental.
And yet it has "Manon of the Spring"(1986) written all over it, from the ancient French cottages to the intrigues of rural sensibilities combating modern cynicism. Although "Love conquers all" could be the cliched theme, it is better thought of as the disabled 20th century, symbolized by Mathilde's polio-induced limp, fighting a war of attachment to vanishing values, symbolized by her fidelity to Manech. WWI remains the "war to end all wars," an ironic beginning to worse wars to come.
As impressive as the preternatural determination of Mathilde is the singular cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel (The Cat's Meow) along with the production design of Aline Buneto: The darkness of the Somme trenches infiltrates everything in the film while the brown of the countryside evokes time gone by and a world bled of beauty. Mathilde's return to the battlefield three years later to find clues to Manech's fate evokes the ironic beauty of the concentration camp covered over with flowers and grass in "Night and Fog," a French documentary of surpassing sadness. The cinematography in "Engagement" is so perfectly attuned to the melancholy of this Romeo and Juliet romance that it makes me want to step into the film to live in rural France and love without qualification.
The film's weakness comes out of its 134 minutes, in which the tortuous tales of the other four condemned self-mutilated soldiers need not have been given so much time. It would rather have been better to show the lyrical relationship of the lovers before their separation in more depth. However, we cannot complain that Jeunet overdid the love business, for the film rather turns on the poet Shelley's complaint to his skylark: "Thou lovest: but ne'er knew love's sad satiety."
Mathilde's patient aunt and uncle in Brittany endure her years of search with good cheer but a growing pessimism. When they acknowledge her sadness is rubbing off on them, we can agreeably nod that another French film has moved us to artistic sympathy. For lyricism see Amelie; for hope see A Very Long Engagement.