It takes a rare film that can make me shed a tear, but A Very Long Engagement managed with ease to make me do a little weep. To put this revelation in context, Titanic only nearly moistened my tear ducts. However, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's wartime romance is far from a bog-standard 'weepy', that would be far too straight forward for him. This absolute cinematic dreamboat tells the tale of Mathilde (played by the ridiculously beautiful Audrey Tautou) who is determined to find her fiance, Manech, who's been missing since he was drafted to fight in the first world war.
Despite all the odds, she just knows he is still alive. So, using her lame leg to garner sympathy, she hires a private detective, and the two go about exploring every tiny possibility and any lead to find out what has happened. She discovers that Manech was one of five soldiers condemned for self-mutilation, which he did in attempt to return to her sooner. She learns several inconclusive accounts of his fate from fellow soldiers in the Bingo Crepuscule trench. As the plot thickens, we are treated to a series of deliriously lovely flashbacks which shows just how she and Manech met and fell in love.
As well as being a romantic film, it is really quite war-heavy and graphic, and at several points I had to shield my eyes! The all-too-realistic portrayal of the horrors of war ensures that this film never verges on being too saccharine-sweet or twee. The regular revelations of character's little quirks has become something of a trademark for Jeunet, and this includes gems such as her aunt saying 'Doggie fart, gladdens the heart!' every time their dog lets rip, Manech constantly engraving M.M.M. (Manech Aime Mathilde) wherever opportunity strikes, and Mathilde setting herself little challenges, for example 'If I don't break the peel, Manech is alive'.
Die-hard fans of Jeunet's work will recognise several of the cast members that he loves to re-use, in particular Dominique Pinon and, of course, Tautou. The very handsome and incredibly French-looking Gaspard Ulliel is wonderful in this as the lovelorn and traumatised Manech, and Marion Cotillard puts in a brief yet very impressive cameo as the murderous Tina Lombardi. The director's ever-present surrealist feel manifests itself in the creative death scenes (look out for the annihilation-by-mirror and Lombardi's brilliant spectacles to gun pulley-contraption) not to mention a certain barman's fully functional wooden hand!
I shan't ruin the ending for you, but I will say that I honestly didn't breathe for about five minutes, it was so tense! As the film came to a conclusion, I definitely had to pull that old 'oh, just something in my eye...' excuse. And as testament to the universal appeal of this outright masterpiece, even my parents - who thought Amelie was 'a bit whimsical' and Pan's Labyrinth 'not very realistic' - absolutely loved it. At two and a half hours, it is A Very Long Film, but if you sat through Titanic or Atonement you can sit through this - it's much better!