A Very Long Engagement is the follow-up film to Amélie for French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Reuniting him with Amélie star Audrey Tautou, he has here crafted a mystery film centered around the leftovers of the First World War. Tautou plays Mathilde, a twenty-year-old polio sufferer who was engaged to a man named Manech (Gaspard Ulliel). Manech tried to get out of the war via self-mutilation — along with four other soldiers, who attempted the same thing — and was condemned to death. He is presumed dead.
Mathilde is unconvinced, and makes it her mission to get to the bottom of it. She hires a private investigator, she heads all around the country, and has this sole desire. She uncovers much more than she expects, however, and discovers the fate not only of her fiancé, but of the other soldiers, and the system which was used to deal with dissenting soldiers from the army. Her determination in this case is something to be admired, and it results in quite the emotional journey because of this.
If A Very Long Engagement wasn’t based around the war, it would easily be on the same level as Amélie, at least in terms of tone. Audrey Tautou is such a pleasant figure to watch on-screen, that even when dark events are being told, we can’t help but smile. Her quest, like the one in the earlier film, is one that she takes in good faith. There’s nothing to be lost, really, as she’d already lived a couple of years without Manech, so even if she discovers that he did, in fact, die in the war, nothing would have changed. It’s because of this that you don’t think there’s much of a risk to her quest.
There is, however, which comes in the form of a prostitute-turned-assassin named Tina (Marion Cotillard), who doesn’t get a lot of explanation but whose scenes indicate that Jeunet could direct a thriller or a horror film with great success. The means by which she disposes of targets are ingenious, and they add the additional darkness, and sense of danger, that would be otherwise missing. She has a reason for existing, but not much of it is revealed; she’s a mystery, and that is how she should stay.
For the most part, this is a film in which the main character has to solve a mystery. It’s not a murder, like it so often is, but there is a case to be figured out nonetheless. Some clues lead deeper, while some provide red herrings. The early scenes don’t benefit from this form of storytelling, but after A Very Long Engagement gets going, it’s quite engaging and effective. The flashbacks woven in don’t help matters, especially because what they reveal has often already been implied or explained.
It’s still a sweet, interesting little movie. Okay, “little” isn’t exactly fair, as it takes place over a relatively long time frame and in multiple locations. It goes from a gritty portrayal of war to an almost too-good-to-be-true “detective” film, each of which is successful enough. Put together, and juxtaposing the awfulness of war with Audrey Tautou certainly brings the former’s point across, there is an enjoyable movie left for the audience.
There is some beautiful filmmaking at work with A Very Long Engagement. The camera does not focus squarely on the face of Tautou, like it did in Amélie. Here, we get sweeping shots of Paris, and of the war. Paris, shot in the best possible light and made to be a picturesque place, while the trenches of the war are suitably filthy and absolutely disgusting. You get the horrors of war and the joy of France all in one movie. How often do you get that? I suppose that question depends on your knowledge of French cinema, but if you’re 99% of the potential audience, your answer will be “Not very often, and I would like it more so I’m going to watch this movie.” Isn’t it great when decisions are made for you?
The title might be off-putting. The film does run for over two hours — although just, clocking in at 133 minutes — but it never feels long. There is always something interesting going on, either in the determination of its main character, the mystery she’s trying to solve, or the sweet romance driving her actions.
Audrey Tautou is not as sweet as she was in Amélie. She isn’t a pixie here; her character is more subdued, as is required. This makes her no less captivating, but if you’re expecting a pseudo-sequel in a similar vein to Jeunet’s previous film, you’re not going to get one. The rest of the cast is strong, too, although they do not leave the impression that Tautou can. There’s even one stunt casting here, as Jodie Foster turns up for seemingly no reason, and draws attention to herself by doing so. You instantly recognize that it’s Foster, and you’re taken out of the film.
A Very Long Engagement is an enjoyable mystery-romance that has one of the most likable leading actors working today, an engaging and important story, and some gorgeous cinematography. It’s too slow at the beginning, and it doesn’t completely add up, but it’s a very enjoyable movie, one that is effective at doing all it aims to do. It’s not Amélie 2, aiming for a very different tone, but it’s still a very good movie by a talented director, and I think it’s worth a watch.