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.