Today was my first morning of feeling human in about a week, so I headed down to the uber-pretentious Harvard Square Theatre to see A Very Long Engagement. I had been looking forward to seeing it for some time, despite my mixed feelings about Amelie, the previous film from Tautou and Jeunet. While I was prepared to be moved by Mathilde and Manech's love story, the film mostly failed as a love story, a mystery, and a war film.
As a war film, the movie does a fine job of conveying the misery of World War I and the horrors it inflicted on the soldiers: horrors that motivated four men to mutilate themselves in an attempt to escape the front (a fifth was wrongly convicted after shooting himself by accident). It also succeeds in sympathetically depicting cowardice. Unlike the protagonist in Saving Private Ryan, the condemned men did not impose the consequences of their inability to continue fighting on the men around them, except in the sense that by trying to be sent home they left the trenches less protected. However, the war scenes are some of the most baffling in the movie; the parties depicted are integrally important to the mystery plotline, but telling apart a dozen mustachoied Frenchmen who are covered in mud makes things rather difficult.
The plot is complex, but the unlikely coincidences (Mathilde's cafe encounter with a German woman who just happens to have a clue to Manech's fate, her sudden ability to break the code in a letter) weaken an already shaky and convoluted structure with the additional burden of their unbelievabilty. A carefully plotted mystery should be like a pocket watch. In AVLE, the director's inability to resist throwing in interludes that do little to advance the story (the most obvious example is the ten minute sequence involving an unbilled Jodie Foster as the wife of a man who was friends with a man who was condemned with Manech) hampers the pacing and detracts from our engagement with the puzzle of what happened in the trenches. Like Mathilde, the movie limps along.
While one reviewer took issue with the lack of passion between Mathilde and Manech, I found their lightly traced progression from childhood sweethearts to engaged lovers sufficient to believably motivate Mathilde's obsessive search. But AVLE shares one defect with Amelie: it's too long. "Overstuffed" was the adjective one reviewer used, and I tend to agree. By the film's end, we're so worn from pursuing loose ends and red herrings that the relief we feel upon resolving the mystery is more of a sagging collapse than a singing triumph. And the film's ending is problematic for another reason . . .
SPOILERS FOLLOW (highlight to read): Mathilde finds out that Manech is still alive, but has lost his memory. She finds him, gentle and kind, but oblivious to their history, and "looks at him, looks at him." I could not help but ask myself what would happen next. Will Mathilde try to make Manech fall in love with her so her feelings for another version of him are reciprocated? What is the point of finding an old lover if he doesn't even know you? Mathilde's love for Manech reminds me of parents who wish to clone a child they've lost; he may look and even act the same, but it's not the same person, and pretending it is seems unhealthy.