SEPARATION is one of war’s terrible wages.

But French director Jean Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement tells the story of hope after the dreadful Great War. Jeunet, famous for directing Amélie, reunites with Amélie star, Audrey Tautou, in this adaptation of Sébastian Japrisot’s novel about a polio-stricken young woman bent on unearthing, against all odds, the mystery of her fiancé’s disappearance after the final battle of Germany and France in 1917.

When lovers Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) and Mathilde (Tautou) are forced to separate when he leaves to fight for France, she clings to the hope and an intuition that her fiancé would come back. After the war, Mathilde is shocked to learn that Manech, along with four others, was sentenced to die in the crossfire for alleged self-mutilation.

This starts Mathilde’s long and optimistic search for her fiancé, whose death she refuses to accept. She hires a private investigator, Germain Pire (Ticky Holgado), to track down the people connected to Manech’s fate. She also does some probing of her own, accessing military archives and stealing confidential documents about Bingo Crepúscule, the trench where the condemned were set off to meet their fate.

Mathilde’s search is propelled by superstition, anything that would give her a sign that Manech is alive. From trying to see if she could finish peeling an apple without breaking the fruit’s skin to reaching a bend by using a shortcut before a car does, Mathilde’s wire of hope is stretched taut, and when it snaps she struggles to tie it back again.

The occasional sepia cinematography effectively gives the film a nostalgic feel. The symbolic shots, such as the grass rippling gradually like waves and an albatross fighting against the direction of the wind, illustrate the strong emotions of the characters.

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Tautou effectively portrayed Mathilde’s persistence and hopefulness during her seemingly futile search. Mathilde, an ideal fiancée, is also a loving niece to the aunt and uncle who adopted her after her parents’ deaths, and a forgiving soul who does not resort to violence in avenging her fiancé.

The supporting cast was not lacking, either. Marion Cotillard, who plays Tina Lombardi, a woman likewise tracking down the fate of her lover, is stunning and deadly as a vengeful “officer killer.” Jodie Foster’s excellent acting and impeccable French accent make her cameo appearance memorable.

Ulliel was admirable as Tautou’s leading man, rendering both passion and innocence in his intimate moments with Tautou’s Mathilde. Their short-lived moments of intimacy are enough to establish a strong chemistry between the two actors. Particularly touching are the scenes in which he professes to feel Mathilde’s heart beating in his hand as his wound throbs, and his propensity for carving their initials everywhere after he loses his sanity. The scenes engage the audience enough as to make them hope that Mathilde’s search for him would be successful.

Audiences might find Mathilde’s investigation a bit tedious, since it involves a lot of characters whose narratives sometimes meet, overlap, and even confuse.

At face value, A Very Long Engagement is easily a sentimental but remarkable narrative of love and optimism amid the devastation of war. The film gives its audience a genuine romance without the fluff, making it, indeed, an ideal love story.


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