The Witch Dance

illustration by Brianna Ashby

In a bedroom on the second floor of a home in the French countryside, Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) watches the door. If the dog pushes it open before dinner is called, then her fiancé, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), is still alive. Later, while peeling an apple, she’ll decide that if the green curls into her palm in one clean ribbon, then Manech didn’t die beneath a spray of bullets.

This pattern continues: if the train comes out of the tunnel before the count of ten, if she reaches the bend before the car turns around it. If any of these things happen as she prays they will, then it means he’s still alive. He’s still out there, for her to find.

A Very Long Engagement, the 2004 film from Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, is set in France in the year 1919. Mathilde’s fiancé, Manech, was one of five French soldiers sent into No Man’s Land as punishment for self-mutilation. There’s no proof of his death, beyond the government’s word. A sergeant who was there in the trench finds Mathilde, but he didn’t seeManech die. The only assurance he can give Mathilde that five bodies were recovered comes secondhand from a raving corporal, blinded by chlorine gas, inches from death and malicious until the end.

This isn’t enough for Mathilde to believe Manech is truly dead, and her resolve becomes a mission. Until she’s given the proof she requires—if not a body, then someone who saw him die—she won’t believe him gone. “If Manech were dead,” the narrator tells us, “Mathilde would know. Since the death notice, she stubbornly holds onto her intuition, like to a flimsy wire. If that wire doesn’t lead her to her lover, never mind. She can always use it as a noose.”

This isn’t the first time Mathilde has faced loss. Her parents died in a bus accident when she was three. Then, two years later, she came down with polio. She survived, but for chronic problems and a lame leg. Despite the love of the aunt (Chantal Neuwirth) and uncle (Dominique Pinon) who raised her, these losses inform her present. At twenty, she stares at herself in the mirror as she braids her hair, violently muttering: “Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.” She plays the tuba because it’s the only instrument able to approximate a call of distress.

She knows what loss feels like, and Manech’s absence isn’t that. It’s something else: undefined, unseen, unreasoned. He becomes her phantom limb.

They first met when Mathilde was nine and Manech was ten. She paced home, slow with her heavy leg, and he orbited around her, peppering her with questions: does it hurt when she walks, does she want to be friends, has she ever been to the top of a lighthouse? To each, she shakes her head and keeps walking. Perhaps she thinks this boy is inspecting her like another exhibit, a strange thing to be examined. She isn’t that. She won’t allow herself to be sidelined as other.

But that night, she has a dream where he saves her life. She dangles from the lighthouse. He pulls her up to safety. They clutch at each other, a bright light shining behind.

The next day, when she sees him, she asks, “Can you see far from the top?”

Ever since, they’ve been bonded to each other, necessary fixtures in the other’s life. This was more than a childhood romance. These were two sweet, soft humans, recognizing a familiar. In their world, neither were alpha. They were victims to the greater, growing forces: buses, polio, machine guns. Having each other and loving each other became their own weapon. They didn’t need to be steel in order to survive. They were Manech and Mathilde.

When Manech is in the trench, small and young and scared, the other men take care of him. They’re gnarled and scarred, and they like seeing a man not so used up. Magically, the chef finds him soup and toast with truffle butter. When they ask if he has a sweetheart back home, his face could be a lantern. He nods. Yes. “Mathilde,” he says. “Her name is Mathilde. I hear her heart beating, like morse code.”

No matter the protestations of her aunt and uncle, Mathilde begins to search for Manech. She has a rolling tally of theories: he could have been taken as prisoner; he might be staying with a German girl with braids and big boobs; he’s lost his mind; he’s in hiding. He’s not dead. She hires a private investigator. She places ads in the newspaper. She steals confidential documents from the government. She follows bread crumbs: a pair of German boots that were traded in the trenches; a knit red glove, too tight to fall off accidentally; a coded letter from one of the condemned men to his wife. The news that comes with each clue is a mix of good and bad. They saw him fall to the ground, but they didn’t see him die. Nothing is definitive. Mathilde doesn’t want to hear that time heals all. She wants to find the man she loves. She wants him to be alive.

This angry hopefulness bled through Europe in the years after World War One ended. Trench warfare brought with it chaos and confusion. In previous wars, death came coupled with order and expectations. No more. There was an incredible disconnect between the ferocity of the new machine guns and the men’s understanding of what was possible. Commanders advised sentries to put more of their body above the trench when they looked out. That way, it was less likely the bullet would be fatal.

In the wake of the war, no one knew how to act, how to trust. They ached with nostalgia for a world that had meaning. Bodies were buried without being catalogued. Dog tags were used inconsistently and often incorrectly. Identifying the dead became a haphazard practice only practical when time allowed. Mostly, soldiers went permanently missing. Families who did receive a notice in the mail would mount them on the mantle, unopened; so long as the envelope stayed sealed, their soldier might still be alive. In the battle between grief or false hope, false hope often won out.

In his book, The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer writes about the memorials that came from the war and how they all seemed paused in midair, like pieces of marbleized static. Heroes are carved mid-step, as if not sure which direction to turn. They’re stuck between the past and the future, barely awake in the present.

This is how A Very Long Engagement feels: like it’s paused in various moments. The separation and stagnation is what prevents forward movement. If the disparate moments could be sorted through and resolved, then a future might be possible.

To the other characters, it seems as if Mathilde is stuttering through the stages of grief, stuck in denial, but what’s holding her in place isn’t purposeful blindness. It’s the belief that there’s something the past isn’t telling her. She has to figure out what that is, before she can move ahead.

A Very Long Engagement is told retrospectively. Dyer noted in his book that even during the war, it was as if people were living nostalgically, aware that they would look back and remember. It was the only way they could get through their day-to-day: to live as if already in a memory.

Mathilde isn’t alone. She realizes early on in her search that she’s two steps behind another woman whose lover was also sent out into No Man’s Land with Manech. Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard), a Corsican whore, wants to find her Angel (Dominique Bettenfeld). And when her search turns sour, her attention shifts to the men who made the order. Tina isn’t like Mathilde. She weaponizes her grief.

When Tina and Mathilde finally meet, Tina acknowledges what we all know: these two are alike. Their methods may be drastically different, but Tina nods at Mathilde. She knows, if their circumstances were switched, Mathilde would have done same. At this, Mathilde shakes her head. She doesn’t think she could. She’d be too afraid. Mathilde isn’t saying that she wouldn’t want to. She’s protesting the courage it would take to pull the trigger.

In the years after the war, German choreographer Mary Wigman became famous for the Witch Dance (Hextentanz). The choreography is ugly and uncomfortable. The videos available show Wigman seated in the center of a spotlight. Her body begins to move, as if her limbs are divorced from her brain. The movements are violent and angry. It’s as if her body is possessed. The arms jerk upwards. Fingers scratch down. Wigman makes it seem as if there is something inside of her, fighting to get out. It’s a dance that externalizes that moment in history: unknowable and impossible and strange.

This is how I imagine Mathilde and Tina’s grief, although the manifestation for each is wildly different.

In their world, trying to bring back the dead is dangerous. But they can’t help it. Grief is a hollowing force. The mourning is most acute when the absence is still present, like that mottled purple bruise that won’t leave your hip. Always there, always worse when you insist on hitting that slab of flesh against the table each time you walk past. Sometimes because you forget not to, and others because it’s worth something to remind yourself that you exist in a body in the world.

For Mathilde, her search is about more than a stubborn belief. Her aunt and uncle are uncomfortable about the grief they’re sure she’s burying, and the intent she brandishes instead. They worry about what might happen on the other side, if her hope proves false. But Mathilde doesn’t care. She conflates Manech with her own heart. She’ll face his death when it’s time to, but no sooner. Not until she’s shown definitive proof that his lifeless body has been buried. More than anything, she wants to find him. She wants to place his hand over her heart again, and let his warm and alive skin feel the morse code of her heartbeat. Even when her uncle tells her to cry or to talk or to do anything to get that sour look off her face, she won’t. Crying or talking would be the same as admitting she thinks he might not be out there, and she won’t admit that. Not until she has to.

Mathilde lives in her memory. Each new clue, each step forward, drives her further back into the past. She remembers the first time they slept together, the hazy orange warmth of the room and each other, and the small spider that hung down from the rafters overhead. She remembers Manech carrying her to the top of the lighthouse, where they kissed through mottled panes of glass. She remembers the top of a church spire, where Manech hit a hammer and chisel against the bell again and again, the loud bongs ringing over the village, as he carved three ‘M’s into the bell.

In the original French, the three ‘M’s stand for “Manech aime Mathilde,” a play on the French verb “aimer” (this particular conjugation pronounced as ‘M’ and meaning “to love”). The English translation contours the phrase into “Manech Marries Mathilde,” a linguistic cheat which nevertheless evokes the deep playfulness and affection and need that dug itself into their bones, so that when one went missing, the other went searching.

But in that moment, they don’t know this truth about their love. Not yet. He yells “Manech aime Mathilde! Mathilde aime Manech!” again and again, claiming the phrase, insisting on it. They’re both exuberant and happy. Anything taken from them, up to that point, is healed by the other. They don’t worry about the future. They don’t know to.

These echoes push Mathilde forward. Their story hasn’t ended yet. She wants their future.

The men who saw Manech in No Man’s Land, remember him carving those three ‘M’s into a lone tree in the center of the muddy, pocked tract. They saw him fall, yes, but they didn’t see him die. When Mathilde clings to this last hope, she’s told: “False hopes will only make you suffer.”

She shakes her head and says: “They’re not false.”

Her lawyer calls to tell her news that, he says, she’s already supposed to know, and can no longer ignore. The five men sent into No Man’s Land have been interred in the Herdelin Cemetery, after temporarily being buried under a tarpaulin in a bomb crater.

She visits the grave. His wooden cross is one of thousands, spread out across a field, too far for the frame to capture. She’s there to face his death, but still, it’s not enough. A wooden cross stamped into the ground isn’t proof of a body, isn’t proof of a permanent absence.

“The wire’s snapped, Manech,” she says. “But I’m not giving up. I need to be sure. You understand, right?”

A Very Long Engagement is a fable about grief and young love. Mathilde and Manech belonged to each other before they were old enough to choose. If Manech had died, Mathilde would know. They paired themselves that childhood afternoon, when Manech circled Mathilde. He might have run ahead between questions, but he always waited for her. He perched on a building, paused until her limping gait caught up to him. Their soft rhythms anticipated each other. They became like two intrinsic, interwoven melodies.

Mathilde loves Manech, but she also feels she owes him this. At his grave, she jokes, “You used to brag about being one year older than me. Now I’m older than you.” But if he is still the older one, and he’s still out there, she’s waiting. She’s asking and she’s searching.

When the dog doesn’t come through the door, it doesn’t mean Manech isn’t alive. When the car that comes around the bend isn’t his car, it doesn’t mean he won’t come home. It doesn’t mean he didn’t survive. It doesn’t mean he isn’t waiting. It only means their inevitability won’t be as clean as they once thought it might be.

Mathilde believes this. She has to.