The first moments in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "A Very Long Engagement" are harsh and sobering. The camera cranes slowly over a large crucifix, battered so the Christ's torso literally hangs from a strand, swinging in the bleak wind. In the background is No Man's Land, the storied in-between land of World War I, here designated by barbed wire and mud everywhere.
A narrator names the date, 6 January 1917, and explains what you see next: "Five condemned soldiers were escorted to Bouchanesnes, at the Front in the Somme," here marching through a trench, stumbling and abused by their captors. But don't despair: as the film is made by the folks who brought you "Amélie," these dire conditions soon give way to quirk.
Based on a novel by Sébastien Japrisot (the pen name for crime writer Jean-Baptiste Rossi), "A Very Long Engagement" follows two story tracks. The first is set in and around this awesomely rendered No Man's Land, where the prisoners, convicted essentially of cowardice, are punished for trying to elude their wartime duties by wounding themselves. Unwilling to shoot them outright, their fellow Frenchmen send the offenders forth into the seemingly endless void at night, assuming the Germans on the other side will do their dirty work for them.
The second story is set some years later, though inter-cut with the first. Considerably more upbeat, it concerns Mathilde (Audrey Tautou), dedicated fiancée of one of the condemned prisoners, 19-year-old Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), nicknamed "Cornflower" by his comrades. Among the doomed men, he has the prettiest and most uncomprehending face, his story displayed in one of the film's many embedded flashbacks: a mortar attack sprays a soldier's guts all over his Manech's face; some days later, he makes his own hand an obvious target for enemy fire.
When his effort to be sent home fails, he is reported "lost" in No Man's Land. Mathilde, however, feels he still lives, and so she determines to discover the details of his supposed demise, spending some three years and lots of (inherited) money on the project. While limited in her own mobility (a polio survivor, she gets around with a limp), she's plucky and persuasive, convincing her warmly supportive guardians (Dominique Pinon and Chantal Neuwirth) to indulge her every desire.
Mathilde's adventures in meeting people who might possess any bit of information about Manech are rendered with the mix of effects that marked "Amélie" -- charming antiquation (including some "postcardy" frames), CGI animation, and deeply saturated color (mostly oranges and blues). At the same time, an omniscient narrator helpfully fills you in on what she might be missing, what she's thinking, and what she's planning for each next step.
The film also offers cutely idiosyncratic routines (a postman who arrives regularly by bicycle, delivering news pertinent to Mathilde's investigation and disrupting her guardian's driveway gravel). While this device intimates a kind of emotional truth, for Mathilde at least, it's also restrictive, too fond of its odd particulars for their own sake.
At the same time, Mathilde's quest forms a narrative backbone, setting up the soldiers' experiences, their realities and self-preserving deceptions unveiled through her discoveries, all helped along by the detective she hires, the Peerless Pry, Germain Pire (Ticky Holgado). While their adventures are sweet (see especially her pilfering of official military papers in a library, while he distracts the man in charge), "A Very Long Engagement" is most compelling when Mathilde actually disappears, and the saga she's pursuing takes center stage. The audacious battle scenes (including that first tracking shot through the trench, referencing Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory") underline not only the absurdity of war, but also the subsequent absurdity of trying to make sense of it, to catalogue, classify, and quantify losses and gains.
But if the ordering imposed by "history" is inherently ridiculous, the specific costs of combat resonate deeply in repeated images of the men's terror and pain, not nearly so abstract or distracting as Mathilde's efforts to reconstruct. When young Manech's wound throbs, he insists that it's the lingering effect of the moment when Mathilde placed that very hand on her heart while they lay quietly, post-coital and hopeful; "He feels Mathilde's heart in his palm," says the narrator, as he trudges through the trench to his fate, holding his hand close to his mouth. "Each beat brings her closer to him."
This isn't precisely true, of course, but the metaphors run thick in "A Very Long Engagement." As much as the wound re-inscribes the ache of love and longing, it also compels Mathilde's search for answers. While she is an admirably fanatical fact-seeker (and so represents any number of left-behind loved ones who feel shortchanged by a flimsy "official" story), Mathilde's part of the story is more about the impossibility of achieving "truth" than any triumphant uncovering of deception, brutality, and vengeance. She and Pire work their way through assorted documents, witnesses, and recipients of news, including relatives and friends of the five men -- a sad-eyed wife, Élodie (Jodie Foster), a ferocious girlfriend Tina (Marion Cotillard), and a barkeep with a mechanically wooden hand he uses to crack nuts.
While Mathilde's encounters with such eccentrics reflect a sort of strained charm, the film's more effective power lies in its battlefield scenes, which are for the most part horrific. As "A Very Long Engagement" arrives in theaters at the same time that real life war images appear nightly on television (however edited these latter may be for primetime consumption), the thematic and political connections are impossible to resist.
No matter how increasingly high tech the weapons and surveillance methods, war remains dreadful, always mangling bodies and psyches. Most awfully, as Jeunet's film insists, the memory of war -- collective and individual -- is at best a deterrent, at worst, a fantasy to fuel more of the same.