A Very Long Engagement, a 2004 film based on a 1991 book about a French girl named Mathilde, whose fiancé was declared MIA in WWI. The film opens with the last known movements of Manech, who, with four others has been convicted of self-mutilation to escape military service, and is to be sent “over the top” into No Man’s Land to find whatever death awaits him there. From early in the film we are told that all five perished in a subsequent battle, and although multiple witnesses confirm this, Mathilde keeps investigating and discovers that this may not be the case. This is a decent film, with a good cast, interesting characters, and a convoluted, clever mystery plot.
Audrey Tatou, who is entirely responsible for the sudden jump in babies named Amélie in English-speaking countries (and who earned my approval by clearly just refusing to kiss Tom Hanks at the end of The DaVinci Code), plays Mathilde. She’s an interesting character, crippled in childhood by polio, living with her patient and understanding uncle and aunt, and having access to seemingly unlimited resources to trek across France and hire lawyers and detectives to pursue the truth about what happened to Manech. Tatou plays the role without much affect, radiating steely determination, but rarely showing despair or grief.
The other characters are interesting. Manech is sweet and dreamy; at times this borders on seeming (possibly intentionally) like an intellectual disability. An example of this is Manech carving MMM (“Manech aime Mathilde”) on a tree in No Man’s Land. He is portrayed as a man who simply should not be in a war zone, because he only partly lives in the “real” world. Marion Cotillard has a totally pointless but nonetheless interesting minor role as homicidal prostitute Tina Lombardi. The rest of the cast is made up of what I suspect are French comic archetypes, and despite its serious subject matter, the film does have a mild comic undertone.
If I had to identify a weakness in this film, I would say that I might have liked Tatou to express a little more emotion. I understand she was playing true to the character, but it would have been nice if she had let us see some uncertainty or fear in Mathilde to make her a bit more sympathetic. Other than that, the story is entirely set around that old chestnut, the injustice of the (French, in this case) army executing its own soldiers. This didn’t particularly bother me, because I didn’t feel as if I was receiving a Lecture On The Irony and the Tragic Waste and It Was Really Shellshock, etc. It was there, certainly. But it wasn’t overt or heavy-handed, because the story was more focused on the plot than exploring the implications of war.
What I found interesting about this film is that in any other genre, it would have been entirely obvious that Manech survived somehow and Mathilde would find him. But set up against the ironclad rule of No Happy Endings in WWI, I was genuinely unsure whether Manech would turn out to have survived, or whether we were heading for a crushingly sad ending. The WWI context increased the stakes, and I was genuinely interested by each twist and turn that the plot took. It was well-crafted, and many details that seemed to be tangential later became important. Towards the end these plot twists started to stray into the territory of silliness, but overall it was a pretty well-crafted story.