A Very Long Engagement (2004)

Rated R. Our ratings: V-8; L-5; S-5/N-3

For the needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish forever.
Psalm 9:18

It (love) bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things… And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
1 Cor. 13:7 & 13

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Hebrews 11:1

A Very Long Engagement

It is indeed a very long engagement that our lovers Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) and Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) endure, their engagement protracted by the interference of World War 1. The film opens in the last year of the War, January 1917, as five French soldiers march under guard through the muddy trenches. Their destination is the trench dubbed Bingo Crepuscule, where they are to be executed. We quickly learn through flashbacks that each of the five have tried to opt out of the savagery of war by either shooting himself in the hand or exposing a hand to enemy sniper fire, in the mistaken belief that an injured hand will earn them a ticket to the hospital and then to home. However, their brutal officers (just how brutal we see in one scene when an especially cruel and vicious officer is smothered face down in the mud by a soldier who can take his viciousness no more!) have seen through their ruse and condemned them to death.

When the sergeant escorting them arrives at Bingo Crepuscule, the commanding officer there, apparently more humane than most, is disgusted with the man, admonishing him that he should have “lost” them enroute. But now that he has the written order of condemnation, he must carry it out. The men had entertained a faint hope of a presidential pardon, but none had come. Accordingly they are given their last meal the night before, their sentence not being the firing squad, but, instead, to be forced to leave the relative safety of the trench for the certain death of no man’s land. One kind-hearted soldier even gives young Manech, nicknamed “Cornflower,” a bright-red woolen glove to cover his painfully injured hand. And so, early the next morning the condemned are forced over the top, where it is expected that each will die, either at the hands of the Germans or the French artillery or sniper fire.

The bulk of the film is set three years later. Mathilde, who has never fully accepted the verdict that her M.I.A. fiancé is dead, receives news that Manech could be alive. Despite a lame leg due to childhood polio, she sets forth from her country home to run down every clue as to his fate. Her affectionate aunt and uncle, who have raised her since her parents were killed long ago, believe her quest a futile one, but they indulge her, even when she hires a detective who proclaims himself a genius at finding the lost or hidden. Thus the film becomes a long mystery as Mathilde and her detective (who seems more like one played by Peter Sellers than Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes), each traveling about to interview a host of persons connected to the five condemned soldiers, uncover one clue after another. One by one she learns the stories of each of the five men, each witness, Rashoman-like, providing a different perspective on Manech and his fate.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet (remember his Amelie, which introduced us to Audrey Tautou) and co-writer Guillaume Laurant adapted their script from the novel by Sebastien Japrisot. Critics who know the book (a Best Seller in France) report that the film is far lighter than the book in recounting the cruel savagery of the War (much as Steven Spielberg stripped both Empire of the Sun and The Color Purple of much of their darkness), but the battle scenes of bodies torn apart or mangled are dark enough for this writer. As with films like Paths of Glory (which also dealt with soldiers condemned to die needlessly), Jeunet’s film parades the madness of war before our startled eyes, leaving no room for us to extol its supposed glory.

One surprise to watch for (beware, a small spoiler coming!) is the cameo role of Jodie Foster as the mistress of one of the men, her performance being singled out by some critics as the best in the film. I had read nothing about the film before its preview, and was so busy trying to keep up with reading the subtitles (ah, how those French speak so rapidly!), that I failed to recognize her (yes, she spoke her lines in French). This is a film extolling “faith, hope and love” (even if the love is not quite the “agape” of Paul’s Letter), one that you will want to be on the lookout for. If there is no art house theater near you, then watch these pages or website for an announcement of its DVD release.

For Reflection/Discussion

(Warning: there is a spoiler or two below.)

1) What do you think of the French military justice from watching this film? (If time permits, check out Stanley Kubrik’s 1957 film Paths of Glory, starring Kirk Douglas.) The Allies claimed to be fighting for Democracy and Freedom, but would you believe this from observing the way the French treated their soldiers?

2) How is this a film in which hope is a central theme? What obstacles stand in Mathilde’s way? How is she like the needy in the Psalm? What periods in your own life were made bearable by hope? Was your hope realized?

3) Were you puzzled by the grizzly murder of the fat man by his lover? How does her story parallel that of Mathilde’s? And yet how is her search very different—that is, what motivates her? How is her end both just and unjust? What apparently overcame her better nature? How might she have had a different fate?

4) What do we learn of the nature of all too many of the French officers? From what class of society do they come? Compare the way in which the five condemned men’s officer lives to that of life in the trenches? Why do you think he did not pass on the President’s pardon of the five?

5) How did you feel at the end of the film? As with most films, there is little reference to God, but at what points might we see God at work in the story?