Socialist Worker

Fairy-tale account of horror and beauty in the First World War

by Kevin Best
Issue No. 1935

Still from

Still from 'A Very Long Engagement'

A Very Long Engagement Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Released Friday 21 January

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has brought to this film some of the magic and spirit of his most famous work Amelie. It sees Audrey Tautou take the lead again—but the role and the subject matter could not be more different. Her character Mathilde is separated from her lover Manech by the outbreak of the First World War. Brutalised by life in the trenches, Manech shoots himself in the hand in a desperate attempt to secure a passage home.

Instead, he finds himself court-martialled and then banished into no man’s land as punishment. Unable to accept news of his death, and unperturbed by the debilitating effects of polio, Mathilde embarks on her own investigation. Despite hearing several graphic accounts of how Manech had perished, recalled first hand by tormented war veterans, she is able to transcend the depression and pessimism of post war France with cheerful determination and strength, certain that Manech is still alive.

The blind innocence of this belief in the face of insurmountable evidence is beautifully narrated through insights into Mathilde’s idiosyncratic thoughts.

The production of the film was financed largely by Hollywood, though it still received subsidies from the French government. But the end result could not be further from a typical US film. I know that some people will have problems with the style of this film, which at times takes on a fairy-tale quality.

To some this may help bring home the horror of the First World War, when working class people were murdered not only by the other side, but also by their own commanders. But I found it a little like watching two separate films. The warm, sun-stained tranquillity that Mathilde inhabits contrasts sharply with the sullen greys and dampness of the trenches. But all in all, this is still a film that people should go and see.

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Article information

Sat 22 Jan 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1935
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