After the success of his 2001 film Amélie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet once again collaborates with the quirky and charismatic Audrey Tautou, this time placing her in the midst of WWI. Tautou plays Mathilde, a young woman searching for her fiancé, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), who — along with four other soldiers — was sentenced to certain death in no man’s land.
Jeunet’s characteristic eccentric style is present, but it has a dark edge in this wartime setting. Mathilde limps due to a childhood case of polio, and plays the tuba because it’s “the only instrument capable of imitating a distress call.” She seeks meaning in her day-to-day life — telling herself that if the dog comes in before dinner, or if she is able to peel an apple in one continuous strip, then Manech is still alive — but finds none; the results of her little tests are inconclusive, often tauntingly so. Still, she perseveres. In the chaotic and meaningless world the war creates, Mathilde is empowered, providing a refreshing gender role reversal in her quest to find Manech. Her search is perhaps overcomplicated (she investigates all four of the soldiers sentenced with Manech, creating a web of back-stories that is at times difficult to keep track of), but she is a genuine and compelling enough heroine to keep us engaged.
While Mathilde’s bucolic world is washed with yellows and pinks, the world of the trenches is gray and green and nightmarish. Bombs cause geysers of soft, dark soil; men catch on fire and their cartridges explode like fireworks; Manech stands alone in the middle of no man’s land, carving Ms into the trunk of a dead tree. Jeunet does not hold back in his depiction of the gruesome chaos of war, and we experience it vividly through the stories of the five condemned soldiers and the loved ones they leave behind. It is a slow and bitter film — sometimes movingly, sometimes tiresomely. But it is also a gentle one, and in its most tender moments (a flashback in which Manech yells, “Manech marries Mathilde” over and over, and Mathilde looks up at the sky and smiles quietly) we remember why we are following Mathilde in her grim, hobbling search.