A Very Long Engagement (2004, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
So many movies this year have ripped my heart out and then put it back together again in new and creative ways, that to say that this is the third-best movie in that vein this year doesn’t do it justice. A Very Long Engagement is a beautifully heartwrenching story about love, hope, and the absurdity of war, by the creator of Amelie.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a creator of worlds, and here he applies this talent to World War 1-era France, where Mathilde (Audrey Tautou, the famed Amelie herself) and Manech (the heartbreakingly lovely Gaspard Ulliel) are engaged to be married. Manech is drafted and sent to fight, and when he is driven to the edge by the horrors of war, he tries to escape–and is sentenced to die for self-mutilation. Mathilde refuses to believe that he is dead, and sets off on an odyssey to find him. Her journey leads her across France, on the tail of an officer-murdering prostitute, a carpenter with German boots, and a presidential pardon.
This movie is almost the anti-Cold Mountain, with the woman’s quest to find her man at its heart rather than the soldier’s attempt to return to his lover. Tautou is a stubbornly winsome heroine unafraid to use whatever means necessary to find her man, and Ulliel is the damsel in distress, beloved by everyone who sees him. Again, the soldier at the heart of the film is tormented by the horrors of war and its fundamental meaninglessness, and attempts to return to what does matter: his love.
What makes this film so good is its combination of Amelie-style whimsy, City of Lost Children-esque industrial bleakness, and a very human, timely premise. The sepia-toned photography, fanciful costumes and settings, and quirky characters keep the film from becoming melodramatic, but the performances of the actors keep the movie emotionally resonant. It will make you laugh, cry, and step through the screen and into its world.