A Very Long Engagement


Audrey Tautou as Mathilde
Gaspard Ulliel as Manech
Dominique Pinon as Sylvain
Clovis Cornillac as Benoît Notre-Dame, alias Cet Homme
Jérôme Kircher as Bastoche
Chantal Neuwirth as Bénédicte
Albert Dupontel as Célestin Poux
Denis Lavant as Six-Sous
Jean-Pierre Becker as Esperanza
Dominique Bettenfeld as Ange Bassignano
Jean-Pierre Darroussin as Caporal Gordes, alias Biscotte
Marion Cotillard as Tina Lombardi
André Dussollier as Pierre-Marie Rouvières
Ticky Holgado as Germain Pire
Jean-Paul Rouve as The mailman
Jodie Foster as Elodie Gordes

A bizarre cross of Amelie and Saving Private Ryan, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest is often too complex and erratic for its own good, but his trademark storytelling and visual style makes it a satisfying experience.

As World War I comes to a close, five soldiers at the trench “Bingo Crepuscule” are court-martialed for trying to get out of fighting by shooting themselves in the hand. Instead of being tried, they are into no man’s land and certain death. The youngest of them, the shell-shocked Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), has a girlfriend back home named Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) who begins her own investigation into what happened, convinced that her lover is still alive.

Filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet may not yet be the household name that his last movie (Amelie) and its star (Audrey Tautou) became, but his work has found fans far from the art house ghetto where French cinema often resides. Based on the novel “Un Long Dimanche de Fiancalles” by Sebastien Japrisot, Jeunet’s fifth film doesn’t stray too far from Amelie in the sense that it’s another sweet love story about a naïve and imaginative girl trying to find her true love. That’s about all it has in common, because under the simple premise, A Very Long Engagement allows Jeunet the opportunity to make a subtle commentary on the horrors of war and the stupidity of politics.

It opens in the trenches of World War I, introducing each of the five condemned soldiers with short, simple flashbacks. It doesn’t take long for the movie to reveal itself as more than a simple warfront tale, when we leave the front and are introduced to Menach’s doe-eyed girlfriend Mathilde, who swoons and romanticizes every situation. She’s been counting the seconds since her lover went off to war, convinced that he’ll return safely, but when the war ends and he doesn’t come back, she begins a desperate search to find him. Despite being told repeatedly that her lover is probably dead, she refuses to believe it, expecting to find him with every new clue she uncovers.

You may need a scorecard to keep track of the multitude of odd characters Mathilde meets, as she learns what happened to the five men thrown to the enemy at Bingo Crepuscule. It’s no surprise that the government is trying to cover up the situation, and everyone has a different story about what happened, each conflicting the one before. It’s little wonder Mathilde doesn’t believe any of them, but the viewer needs to have a similar tenacity to keep up with all of it, since it takes a while for the story to get into gear. The story’s complexities also bode repeat viewings in order to catch some of the nuances, but Jeunet’s charming seriocomic storytelling makes it easy to get caught up in Mathilde’s quest.

While war is serious business, A Very Long Engagement is not so much a drama as a bittersweet mix of harsh reality and childlike fantasy a bit like Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful. Jeunet’s trademark humor often pokes through the trauma with recurring “sight gags” like the mailman who insists on skidding into Mathilde’s rock driveway splaying stones everywhere. The warfront sequences cross the visceral surrealism of Terry Gilliam with the bizarre, dark humor of the Coen Brothers. Jeunet builds up to a huge visual tour de force, much like he did with Delicatessen’s flood, with a sequence involving an air balloon hovering ominously over a makeshift hospital. The tension in watching this zeppelin slowly creep closer to certain disaster is classic Jeunet.

Fans of Amelie will appreciate Tautou’s Mathilde, who is cut from the same cloth, living in a fairy tale world keeping only a pinkie toe in reality. Her adorable nature allows her to get into all sorts of precocious situations, so she may very well be a distant relative to Amelie. The dark humor of the story only works because Jeunet’s cast of regulars-Dominique Pinon is the most recognizable as Mathilde’s father-bring the comical characters to life with animated performances and impeccable comic timing. Some may be jarred by the uncredited small role played by actress Jodie Foster, as she blends so perfectly into this cast with her perfect French.

Like Jeunet’s previous films, A Very Long Engagement has a distinct look, using muted monochromatic colors to give it the look of an old silent film or a faded photograph. It’s all pulled together by Angelo Badalamenti’s gorgeous score, which adds to the epic nature of Jeunet’s story.

At its very simplest, Jeunet’s latest could be seen as a reversal on Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain, but this quirky romantic fairy tale set in the midst of a horrible war will not be for everyone. Sure, there are similarities in the storytelling and humor to Amelie, not to mention the ever-present use of voice-over narrative, but the graphic warfront violence may be hard for some to watch. The mix of these two very different tones makes for a rather erratic film experience, but in the end, Jeunet’s ingenuity ensures that it all pays off.

A Very Long Engagement opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.