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A Muddy Mystery of War

'A Very Long Engagement' Sifts Intrigue and Hope From the Muck of WWI

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2004; Page C05

The engagement that dominates Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "A Very Long Engagement" isn't the one that betroths Mathilde to Manech, but the one that separates them: World War I.

That engagement, very long indeed, is the subject proper of this extraordinary film, which, while playing by the rules of narrative and telling a riveting story, at the same time serves as a rumination on the mass slaughter of the innocents, as thousands were swallowed in the mud of the Somme, in a squabble between cousins who happened to be kings. In its insistence on the centrality of the war to the collective consciousness of mankind, therefore, it's of a piece with "The English Patient," rather than "Saving Private Ryan."

Audrey Tautou is relentless but rational in her investigation into what happened to her fiance in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "A Very Long Engagement." (Gilles Berquet -- Warner Independent Via AP)

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Jeunet, working from Sebastian Japrisot's well-regarded novel of the same name, presents his story as a mystery rather than a war movie. That spares him and us the cliche of the platoon of guys, the noble sarge, the passionate captain, the sniper, all those constructs so familiar and banal.

In this formulation, the investigating officer is a young, lame girl named Mathilde (Audrey Tautou, whose incandescence resembles that of the other Audrey, the one named Hepburn) who feels in her heart that her fiance, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), is not dead in no man's land as the government has reported. So, two years after the war, she begins to examine the evidence, sifting through accounts of what happened that last day in the trenches.

It wasn't pretty. Manech, it seems, was one of five men, heroes and long-serving trench rats all, who finally had had enough and engineered a moment of self-mutilation in search of the million-franc wound and transit home. In his case, he lifted his hand, cupping a cigarette, over the trench lip one night, and received the long-dreamed-of sniper's bullet through the palm, spraying fingers and blood all over the landscape. However, his act of self-preservation was seen by a sergeant. He was court-martialed and by executive fiat, he and his four brothers in maimed hands were simply taken to the farthest forward salient and forced out of the trench into the deadly zone between the lines where, one by one, to bullet, grenade, artillery, each perished. Or seemed to.

But the plucky Mathilde doesn't believe it. She knows it can't be true, because she knows the world would feel different if Manech were no longer in it, and it doesn't. Thus she begins to search, hiring a private investigator, going herself through old records in the war office, tracking down the wives and mistresses of the other victims. From each she learns a little more, and the conceit of the movie is that when Mathilde learns, Jeunet dramatizes. This means we keep going back to that trench, on that day.

As an icon of the most futile and tragic war ever fought, the war from which nothing good emerged except poetry, the trench is perfect. It's a raw gully cut into a sea of mud, shored by timber against the soupy and unsubstantial composition of the earth. The general characteristic of the men who serve there is existential dread, for to attack is to die by German guns and to flee is to die by French ones; theirs not to reason why, theirs but to sit and die, amid gangrene, gas, rotting bodies, strafing planes, decadent officers and endless wet, cold misery.

Over and over Jeunet returns to this blasphemed ground, demonstrating the theory and practice of hell. When the boys crawl from it, the machine-gun fire comes slithering through the air, a malign presence (computer graphics give the fleets of bullets a sulfurous incandescence); the noise is terrific (this detail seems borrowed from "Private Ryan") and the slaughter endless, spectacular and gigantic. But worst of all, somehow, is that cursed mud, which sucks them all down, makes their sure doom even more vivid.

Jeunet is notorious, on the basis of "Delicatessen" for one and "City of Lost Children" for another, for creating worlds. In this film, however, it's not so much an act of creation as recovery; the trench, its intricacy so brilliantly detailed, its hideous crumbliness seeming to weigh in upon the poor men who call it home, stands in perfect relief to Mathilde's sunnier world, all green and glorious, the world that a generation of men left behind.

As she investigates, she seems to intersect four other stories, the narratives of the others exiled into no man's land -- a pimp, a farmer, a carpenter, a welder. Each life is evoked; each loss is memorialized. But other plots intrude. The pimp's betrothed, a prostitute, isn't the benign investigator that Mathilde is: She favors vengeance on the culpable, no matter the cost. Then there's the farmer and the ever-tantalizing possibility that, with his rural shrewdness, his courage, his indomitability, he may have figured one way out . . . and he may have taken someone with him.

Mathilde is the best kind of investigator, patient, rational, relentless. As an actress, Tautou isn't quite as young as the part requires, but her relationship with Jeunet from the enchanting "Amelie" counts for more than youth. We watch raptly as the investigation widens, then narrows, as one by one the meaning of the anomalies of the last day are interpreted and put in place. In the end, "A Very Long Engagement" solves the smaller mystery it set out to in the beginning. More importantly, it evokes the bigger one, which alas can never be solved: Why on Earth did they fight the First World War?

A Very Long Engagement (134 minutes, in French with subtitles, at Landmark E Street and Loews Cineplex Cinema) is rated R for battle violence and sexual detail.

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