A very long engagement

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

France| 2004. English subtitles. Colour. Anamorphic. Dolby digital stereo. 134 min.

A flamboyant mixture of battlefront spectacle, home front romance, revenge drama and detective story, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s first film since Amelie is all this and more. Cinematically bigger and dramatically richer than that phenomenally successful 2001 monument of whimsy, A Very Long Engagement confirms Jeunet as a master showman who has no need to work in English to make visually striking entertainment of international appeal. The new film’s darker vision is modulated by the romantic optimism of the young woman at its centre, embodied, of course, by Miss Amelie herself, Audrey Tautou, touchingly and admirably neo-Victorian as a rock of faith in a sea of cynicism, doubt and resignation.
In adapting Sebastien Japrisot’s 1991 novel (published in English in 1994), Jeunet and long-time writing partner Guillaume Laurant had their work cut out. The starting point is the story of how five soldiers at the front in 1916 are court-martialled for self-inflicted wounds to get themselves out of service. They are sentenced to death not by firing squad but by a more sadistic approach: marched to the front lines and dispatched unarmed into no man’s land to be picked off by German snipers and planes.
As it turns out, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), one of the soldiers, is Mathilde’s (Tautou) childhood sweetheart who has virtually lost his reason in the unending carnage. Disbelieving the official version of her lover’s death, Tautou hires a private detective after the war to piece together the story of these men’s final hours and discover if, as she believes, her lover may have survived the war after all. Quickly, the film opens up to interweave the various backstories of these ill-fated soldiers (artisans, workers and peasants) as Tautou undertakes her dogged personal quest across post-war France. In counterpoint, we also follow another war ‘widow’ (Marion Cotillard), a sort of avenging angel determined to punish those directly responsible for her man’s ignominious death.
As usual, Jeunet’s direction gives the action wings. His recreation of life and death in the trenches has a post-Spielberg immediacy that compares favourably with previous Great War movies, from All Quiet On The Western Front to Paths Of Glory (and, more recently, Bertrand Tavernier’s 1996 epic of men at war, Captain Conan). Other moments of horror stand out, including an unflinching (but distantly observed) guillotine execution, and the bombing of a dirigible hanger-cum-military hospital.
Yet for all the film’s darkness and tragedy, Jeunet still finds plenty of room for moments of his signature humour and some recurring comic figures such as the Jacques Tati-esque country postman who brings Tautou news of her investigation. Thanks to top-notch special effects and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s lyrical, dynamic camera, Jeunet also has a field day recreating the Paris of the 1910s and 1920s. There are loving cameo evocations of the Place de l’Opera, the Halles food market, the Orsay train station (long before it became a museum), the Trocadero, Paris underwater when the Seine overflowed in 1910—and, yes, there’s a stopover in Amelie country, Montmartre.
The large colourful cast balances Jeunet regulars with less familiar faces. Among the former are Dominique Pinon, as Tautou’s uncle and guardian; Jean-Claude Dreyfus, in dependably grotesque mode as a corrupt superior officer who gets a most original comeuppance at the hands of the avenging Cotillard; and the late Ticky Holgado, delightful as the eccentric private detective with the kind of name that invites the worst, groan-inducing puns. No doubt the film’s biggest surprise performance comes from Jodie Foster, touchingly convincing (and not dubbed) as a Parisian market stall-holder whose impotent soldier husband asks her to have a baby with his best friend.

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