A Very Long Engagement is the 2004 film from the Amelie crew, including director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and actress Audrey Tautou. It concerns a young fiance's search for answers after word gets back her lover has been lost at the front. It elegantly captures the ugliness of World War One's trench warfare, yet is curiously uninvolving after the mystery is solved.
As the movie opens, we see four men being marched along a trench, ankle deep in water as the rain pours down. We are sequentially introduced to each of the condemned men, as they were sentenced to death for "self mutilation", some on purpose and some by accident. This death penalty was invoked to keep others from trying to get sent home due to injury by shooting themselves in the hand. We follow this dreary, wet band of men as they get passed off from one guard to the next, eventually getting pushed up over the trench and into "no man's land", left to fend for themselves as daybreak comes.
One of the condemned men is Manech, who's lover awaits him at a seaside cottage, living with her aunt and uncle. Mathilde (Tautou) and Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) were engaged to be married upon his return from the front, and she doesn't believe in his death, as she never felt the psychic shock. She often plays mental games, to test her faith - "If my uncle knocks before the clock strikes 5, Manech is still alive.". Strangely enough, these games often end ambiguously.
Mathilde goes on a long search, hiring a renown detective (Ticky Holgado, a veteran French film presence in his last film) to help in her search. They unravel a tortuous paper trail, a vengeful other woman, and much sadness and lunacy. Like her mind games, the movie ends in an ambiguously Pyrrhic victory.
Jeunet, who directed other wondrously inventive films like Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, goes for the more serious side here, and only partially succeeds. He does have a couple of cool camera touches, and the scenes from the front are truly visceral, right up there with Saving Private Ryan for visual and aural impact. The sound in particular is incredibly well done, and he mentions in the commentary that he made his sound folks go back and listen to Private Ryan whenever he felt they were coming up short. And due to the subject matter of the nearly pointless trench warfare of World War One's Western Front, it has an even more visceral impact.
One problem I had was I felt Tautou was just too old for the part. She was supposed to be 17 years old when he left for the front, and only a few years older during the main part of the movie, yet she is 26 at the time of the filming. And a couple of places, where they put her in tiny braids, had an almost embarrassing touch, as it felt like they were truly straining to make her look younger. And I just never felt her pain and sorrow, so by the time the movie ended, it was like "big deal".
Another problem is one Jeunet mentioned in his commentary, where it was hard to tell everyone apart. Several had similar names and even despite the device he used whereby they were often mentioned with an identifying clause ("Benjamin the carpenter", "Benoit from Notre Dame", etc), it was still hard to tell who they were talking about. I couldn't often follow the "mystery", nor even who was getting revenge on whom. Even Jodie Foster making an appearance as a grieving widow didn't help. I just plain never got involved in the whole thing.
So it makes for a fascinating, gut-wrenching view of life in the trenches, but it doesn't spend much time there. The other story, the quest for "truth", is only partially successful. And I thought it went on for too long; I was ready for the ending after less than two hours, and I still had 15 minutes or more to go. So it is worth a rental, but I wouldn't stand in line for it.