Jean-Pierre Jeunet is one of my favorite directors. His movies include the international hit Amelie, the cannibalistic Delicatessen, and cult favorite Micmacs. A Very Long Engagement may be his most conventional film, but it exhibits all of Jeunet's directorial quirks.
A Very Long Engagement is the love story of Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) and Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), two young French lovers separated by World War I. Manech never returned home from war. He deliberately injured his hand and was court-martialed and sent into No Man's Land with a group of four other fellow self-mutilators from the same trench. But Mathilde doesn't believe he died and sets out to find him. At the same time, Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard) seeks revenge on those who sent her lover to his death with Manech.
The story shifts back and forth in time as Mathilde tracks down anyone who might know anything and collects their stories. Often Mathilde learns things that contradict what previous characters thought was true. But piece by piece things come together and the viewer starts to believe that Mathilde might be right, that Manech somehow survived. It's a tricky film, full of all sorts of tricky details, but ultimately rewarding. And every scene where Manech and Mathilde are together is absolutely swoonworthy because Tautou and Ulliel are both ridiculously pretty people. A Very Long Engagement is arty and complex, but above all else it is a romance. And as much as I enjoy a good romantic comedy, it's sometimes relaxing to watch a romance that doesn't need shenanigans. (That isn't to say A Very Long Engagement doesn't have a sense of humor.)
I should note that A Very Long Engagement is not for viewers who are sensitive to violence. The scenes of trench warfare are as horrifying as anything in an action war film and Lombardi gets her vengeance in very inventive ways. But all the violence makes the sweetness that much more rewarding.
Despite being a French film, you might recognize many of the faces in the large cast. Tautou and Ulliel have both starred in English-speaking productions. Cotillard has gone on to become a major movie star. Jodie Foster has a cameo as a Polish woman. And just . . . don't be afraid of subtitles. Give foreign films a chance, especially when they're this beautiful.
A Very Long Engagement will appeal to fans of Atonement and Legends of the Fall. (Okay, so Legends of the Fall is super schmaltzy, it's still a wartime romance and I happen to enjoy it.) It's an artful and affecting film, and one I re-watch yearly.