Back in 1917, as the First World War was nearing its end, there were a group of five French soldiers who were to be punished for deliberately injuring their hands in an attempt to be discharged from service, even though one of them had shot his hand by accident. The military authorities could see nothing but cowardice in the men's actions, and felt no compassion for, say, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), the youngest at eighteen, who had been hit through the palm by a German bullet he had courted on purpose after the pressure of the trenches had gotten too much for him. But Manech had fiancée Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) waiting for him, little knowing he was being sent to his death...
Or was he? It's the triumph of hope against reason that powers the narrative of A Very Long Engagement, or Un long dimanche de fiançailles if you were French, which was the film that Tautou and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet followed their international success Amelie with. This was nowhere near the hit that their previous film had been, probably because although it has just as much faith in the power of love to conquer all, this is married to an exceedingly over-involved plotline that frequently makes it seem as if its heroine is deluded.
I am not going to reveal the ending, but it's this faith that she is in the right, this gut feeling that directs her actions, that gives Mathilde her purpose in life, and in turn the reason we keep watching. You do wonder that if Manech has indeed died at the Front you might be wasting as much time on him as Mathilde - well, not three years' worth of time, but at least that compressed into a couple of hours - yet Tautou brings out a steely determination that elicits a compulsion to stick with her. This in spite of using a variation on the old "If the toilet stops flushing before I get to the bottom of the stairs I will die" form of deduction.
In real life, experience will usually tell you that if you have hoped for years for something to happen along when all evidence points to it never occuring, then the best thing to do is give up and move on, but this is the cinema we're talking about, and besides there would be no story about war worth telling if there was not a triumph against impossible odds. Unless you're making one of those war films about sacrifice counting for nothing, which does happen, and might be the case here. A Very Long Engagement is in its twisting, winding fashion a detective yarn, drawing you in with each clue and snatching back your attention with each surprise, even when the trail appears to have gone cold.
Needless to say, this is all deeply romantic, the thought that a love affair can continue far after the couple have been split up, and Mathilde keeping the flame alive is a source of admiration. Jeunet films this by flitting from each development and revelation like a bee visiting each flower looking for nectar, never settling on one thread for too long when there are a host of others lining up to be examined. It has an abundance of style, as is always the case with this director, but it's not too distracting, and if you find your mind wandering (this is very complicated for such simple emotions driving it) then you can appreciate each painterly frame as it dances onto the screen. It's a journey worth taking as an illustration of the indomitability of the human spirit when the enormity of war's tragedy strikes, although its quirks verge strongly on the overfamiliar and it's never quite as profound as it aims to be. Music by Angelo Badalamenti.