Sure, the name is an open target for dumb jokes. But Sébastien Japrisot's haunting romance "A Very Long Engagement" translates well onto the big screen, with a bit of help from "Amelie" director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and the wonderful Audrey Tautou.
Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) is a pretty young girl who was left crippled by polio, and is being raised by her uncle and aunt. Before World War I, she fell in love with a boy called Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), but he was sent to the war and killed. Three years later, Mathilde gets a mysterious letter with shocking news: Manech was not killed in action, but condemned to death by being sent unarmed to the front lines -- and miraculously, he might still be alive.
Mathilde is determined to find her lover -- dead or alive -- and learn what really happened on that day three years ago. So she puts out ads in the papers, gathers accounts, and hires a detective to follow the cold trail. And slowly the gaps in the stories emerge, giving Mathilde clues to whether Manech died... and where he might be now.
"A Very Long Engagement" (French title: "Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles") diddles a few details from the novel, but is faithful to it in the ways that matter -- the "MMM" inscriptions, the non-linear storytelling, the horrors of World War I. In some ways, it seems almost impossible to transfer onto film without creating a pretentious mess -- but it wasn't.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet proves that "Amelie" was no fluke, but this time he relies mostly on visual artistry, rather than in magical realism. He also reminds us, by displaying the French countryside along with flashbacks of the front lines, that war is stupid and wasteful. But it's not an obvious, slam-in-your-face reminder. Like the romance, it's delicate and wistful.