Audrey Tatou and Gaspard Ulliel in A Very Long Engagement – © Warner Independent Pictures
The year is 1917. The setting, the Battle of the Somme, one of the darkest periods of World War I. The sheer atrocity of trench warfare has driven many French soldiers to take their own lives or at least to inflict an injury on themselves serious enough to justify their being sent home as invalids.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement – to be screened at the San Francisco Alliance Française on Tuesday evening – was adapted from the best-selling novel by Jean-Baptiste Rossis (written under the pseudonym Sébastien Japrisot). It tells of five young French soldiers who have apparently taken this route of self-inflicted injury to escape the horrors of the war, but they’ve been caught, and – although one of them is actually innocent – the sentence passed by a court-martial results in their banishment to that bloodiest and most cruel of places – No Man’s Land – as ‘canon-fodder’ for the forces of whichever side ultimately ends up finishing them off.
One of the five has a fiancée, Mathilde – played by Audrey Tatou – who is determined, after the War has ended, to find out what has happened to the man she loves, and it’s through her eyes that the tale unfolds. She has seen a letter which alludes to the fact that her fiancé Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) is still alive, and she embarks on a search for eyewitnesses and survivors who could help her find him – so sure is she that he’s still alive.
The cast of A Very Long Engagement also includes Ticky Holgado as the private detective whom Mathilde hires to help her, Marion Cotillard, as Tina – a prostitute seeking revenge for the death of her lover – and Jodie Foster as one of the witnesses from whom Mathilde seeks information.
The Atlantic describes the film as “the most engaging” of Jeunet’s films, “a stylish and satisfying epic of love and war, hope and memory”. Roger Ebert highlights the visual impact of Jeunet’s direction in glowing terms – “The barbarity of war and the implacable logic of revenge are softened by the voluptuous beauty of Jeunet’s visuals and the magic of his storytelling …. He must work in a kind of holy trance, falling to his knees at night to give thanks that modern special effects have made his visions possible. Some directors abuse effects. He flies on their wings.”
The film was nominated for two Oscars at the 2005 Academy Awards ceremony, and for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe award in the same year. Among the 17 awards won by the film were five Césars and an American Society of Cinematographers Award – both in 2005 – and in 2004 a Chicago Film Critics Association Award. It scooped a total of 33 nominations in all. A list of all awards and nominations can be found on the IMDb website .
A Very Long Engagement – in French with English subtitles – screens at the San Francisco Alliance Française, 1345 Bush Street, on Tuesday, November 15, at 7.00 pm. Admission is free, but a donation of $5 is suggested.