A Very Long Engagement is all that its title promises. At two and a quarter hours, it is the longest film yet by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet; happily, it is also the most engaging, a stylish and satisfying epic of love and war, hope and memory.
After an early career of directing shorts and commercials, in 1991 Jeunet and partner Marc Caro broke into feature films with the post-apocalyptic black comedy Delicatessen. This was followed by City of Lost Children, another meticulously designed dystopian nightmare. Jeunet and Caro then went their separate ways, with Jeunet pinballing from the embarrassment of Alien: Resurrection to the redemption of Amélie. Throughout this period, it was easy to view Jeunet as essentially a technical director, a kind of Gallic Tim Burton, with a gift for visual dreamscapes but an uneven knack for storytelling. Even in Amélie, his most successful film, the breathless whimsy and directorial gimmickry that made the first hour such a delight began wearing thin well before the film was over.
With A Very Long Engagement, however, Jeunet has finally found a story with gravity sufficient to tether his wilder flights of fancy, one that manages to sustain and even deepen our interest as the minutes tick by. The film, released on video earlier this month, is adapted from the bestselling novel by Jean-Baptiste Rossis (writing under the anagrammatic pseudonym Sebastien Japrisot) and is set during and immediately after the First World War. It opens in 1917, with five French soldiers who have been sentenced to death for self-inflicted wounds they'd hoped would get them sent home from the front. (In at least one case, the wound was in fact accidental.) The soldiers' stories are told in rapid, omniscient flashbacks of a kind that will be familiar to any who saw Amélie. But befitting the material the tone is more somber, the narrative gymnastics less audacious. The men have witnessed many horrors--a comrade blown into spattery gobbets of flesh mere feet away, a commanding officer who kicked his dead troops, the digging of graves for soldiers not yet killed--and, as punishment for their self-mutilations, they will face yet another: Rather than firing squad, they will be sent out into No Man's Land, the barren, blasted graveyard between the French and German trenches, to cower in the mud and blood until their inevitable demise at the hands of one army or the other.
The youngest of the five, a boy named Manech, is engaged to be married to a young woman named Mathilde (Audrey Tautou), a pretty orphan with a limp caused by a childhood bout with polio. After the war, Mathilde receives a letter suggesting that Manech, long presumed dead, may have survived after all. She takes this as confirmation of what she has believed all along: If he had died, she would have felt it. And so Mathilde sets out to determine what fate befell her fiancé, searching army documents, interviewing other soldiers, eventually even traveling to the site of the slaughter, where a field of wildflowers has replaced the cratered wasteland. She finds a series of interlocking mysteries--the last wearer of a pair of German boots, the meaning of a letter written in code--that yield fitfully to the power of her dogged hopefulness. She also discovers that she is not alone in her quest: A vengeful prostitute, the lover of another of the condemned men, is conducting a parallel investigation, though with considerably more sinister intent.
The witnesses tracked down by Mathilde tell and retell what took place in No Man's Land, each adding a bit of evidence that casts the events in a new light. They also inevitably confide their own stories, so that even as the film presses forward it grants itself the occasional discursion, notably the tale of a woman (played by Jodie Foster, her French more than passable) pressured by her husband into sleeping with his best friend.
Jeunet's earlier films never let you come to them. They rushed out to meet you, a little too eager to win your affection. A Very Long Engagement, by contrast, takes its time, gathering weight and drawing you in slowly. There are moments of cinematic dazzle--the elaborately macabre murders of the angel-of-death courtesan, a giddy flashback of Mathilde and Manech playing on the summit of a lighthouse, a blimp explosion that makes the Hindenberg accident look like a roman candle--but for the most part Jeunet tempers his usual pyrotechnics. The comic daffiness, too, has been ratcheted down considerably; although the film has its share of ridiculous characters, they're played relatively straight.
Jeunet instead focuses his imagination on the creation of an alternative universe, recognizable as our own yet nonetheless slightly fantastic. In fact he creates two: the bleak, despairing grayness of the front lines, a parade of death so savage and senseless that even the sun cannot bear to look down on it; and a contrasting image of Mathilde's peacetime world, conveyed in sumptuous sepia tones. Whether the rocky coast of Brittany or the busy streets of Paris or the flowered field where soldiers once fought, Jeunet offers (with the help of his digital wizards) a lush vision in green and yellow, as if the world itself had been subtly gilded. It's a look reminiscent of that achieved by the Coen brothers in O Brother Where Art Thou, but rather than suggest the aridity of the Dust Bowl, Jeunet uses it to capture the beauty of a sunlight as thick as honey.
That, and the beauty of Audrey Tautou. The entire cast, which features several of Jeunet's regular players, is strong. But A Very Long Engagement is Tautou's film, and she carries it on her slender shoulders with dignity and surpassing loveliness. There are plenty of film actresses as pretty as Tautou, but perhaps none whom the camera loves quite so much. With her large, dark eyes and unbidden smile, she seems forever poised between innocence and mischief. Like the film, her performance unfolds slowly. Early on, her aunt and uncle complain of Mathilde's "sour face" (or, as the phrase translates literally, "pickaxe head"). But as the movie progresses, she opens up, hope and disappointment and determination lighting her features with a radiance more powerful than any digitized effect.
I won't say whether Mathilde ever finds her Manech, merely that A Very Long Engagement ends on a note neither saccharine nor bitter, a moment the film, and Tautou's performance, have been building toward from the beginning. In the closing seconds, the camera lingers on Tautou for a few beats before backing slowly away, as if unable to pry itself from her. It is easy to empathize.
The Home Movies List: Jeunet's Journey
Delicatessen (1991). Equal parts sadism and slapstick, this is probably the wittiest take on cannibalism since Eating Raoul. The delightful clowning of Jeunet favorite Dominique Pinon stands out amid the Rube Goldberg suicide schemes, subterranean frogmen, and human charcuterie. Still, the movie's conceit is a bit too slender to sustain and, as a result, the gags gradually peter out.City of Lost Children (1995). As an exercise in style, it's one of the more interesting takes on the retro-futurist absurdism popularized by Brazil. As a movie, it's a bit too odd and scattered to be satisfying, and far too dark to be the children's fare it imagined itself as. On the plus side, it does star the otherwordly Ron Perlman.
Alien: Resurrection (1997). Written by Joss Whedon (of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" fame) and featuring a cast with Perlman, Pinon, and designated sleaze balls Dan Hedaya and J.E. Freeman, this ought to have been an enjoyable, perhaps even exceptional, monster movie. Instead, it is a dull, overwrought muddle in which the only thing that stands out is an astonishingly lousy performance from Winona Ryder.
Amélie (2001). Fun but ultimately unfulfilling. When you strip away the narrative playfulness and zany sideplots, there's just nothing to the central romance--no depth, no tension, no history, no weight. It's an idea of love so abstracted that it loses all resonance. Of course we want Audrey Tautou to find happiness; but who really cares whether she finds it with vague, forgettable co-lead Mathieu Kassovitz?
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.