How to explain it? When Hollywood undertakes to make an epic romance set against one of the nation’s great military tragedies, it comes up with a turkey like “Pearl Harbor.” When a French filmmaker does so, he produces something like Jean-Paul Rappennau’s marvelous “Bon Voyage” or this even finer picture from Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Delicatessen,” “City of Lost Children,” “Amelie”). “A Very Long Engagement,” based on a novel by Sebastian Japriscot, is as intricate, stylish and exquisite to behold as Jeneut’s previous films, but with greater emotional richness. Quite simply, it’s an enthralling experience, one of the year’s very finest pictures.
“Engagement” begins with a prologue that captures the horror of trench warfare on the Western Front during World War I better than any film since Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory.” Five soldiers who have maimed themselves to avoid service (and, in one case, assaulted a brutal superior) are sentenced to death–with the “execution” to be carried out by simply forcing the men into no man’s land, where they will eventually be killed by enemy fire despite futile attempts to hide. With brisk but telling efficiency (and the dazzling technique he’s known for), Jeunet, aided by editor Herve Schneid, sketches their backgrounds through flashbacks and narration. One of the men is a mere youngster, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), nicknamed Cornflower by his comrades, a sweet-faced, sweet-tempered but befuddled fellow whose conscription has taken him from his fiancee Mathilde (Audrey Tautou). Mathilde, orphaned young and brought up by her loving aunt and uncle (Chantal Neuwirth and Jeunet favorite Dominique Pinon), and a victim of polio that left her with a limp, refuses to believe that Manech is dead, despite official reports that all five men were killed; and the remainder of the film is devoted to her search for the truth about what happened to him and the other four–a quest aided by a private investigator Germain Pire (Ticky Holgado). As her search continues, we witness the events on the front that fateful day from different perspectives that bring us closer and closer to understanding what actually happened. There’s also a contrasting subplot involving another woman, Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard), the companion of one of the other dead soldiers, who’s equally obsessed with the lover she lost but directs her energies to avenging rather than locating him. In the end there’s a reversal that’s quite satisfying–if a bit bittersweet and implausible from a purely logical perspective–validating the absolute certainty of Mathilde in the power of her love for Manech.
“A Very Long Engagement” is complex and dreamlike, with a small army of characters for viewers to keep straight (the press notes actually include a sort of table of them, complete with sketches, that might also benefit others); but it’s so perfectly controlled and masterfully executed that the rewards far outweigh the attention it demands. Tautou provides a firm, stable presence as the intrepid heroine, never allowing Mathilde to become a maudlin figure; it’s a far cry from her effervescent Amelie, but she invests the role with the depth it requires. Menach is a more fleeting character, but he must exude innocence and naive charm for Mathilde’s obsession to seem comprehensible even in so extravagantly romantic a tale, and Ulliel manages the feat with a performance that blossoms as the young man appears periodically in flashback. Among the large supporting cast, Pinon and Neuwirth stand out for the homely humor they contribute, along with Jean-Paul Rouve as the postman whose interventions provide a running joke to the narrative, and Holgado does an amusing turn as the preening P.I. Of the soldiers, Albert Dupontel strikes an imposing figure as the good-hearted mess sergeant whose last-act revelations prove of major importance in revealing the mystery of Menache, and Jean-Pierre Becker, as a dying witness, and Clovis Cornillac, as a strong farmer drafted from his fields for the trenches, make vivid impressions; so does Tcheky Karyo, in what amounts to a cameo as the officer furious at having to follow the orders to throw the condemned men into a situation that will certainly result in their deaths. And Jodie Foster pops up briefly as the wife of one of the dead men, showing that she’s capable of more than passable French. If there’s a weakness to be found anywhere, it’s in the subplot about Lombardi; though it invites a couple of the most visually stunning scenes in the film (apart from those at the front, which are simply amazing)–both involving her imaginative dispatching of villains–it seems a trifle arch beside the story’s main thread, and Cotillard doesn’t bring much to her character besides a cold, alabaster beauty.
Technically, it would be difficult to imagine a film more beautifully fashioned than this one. From the recreations of early twentieth-century Paris to the almost surrealistically desolate Western Front settings and the rural vistas, the images are consistently entrancing–kudos to production designer Aline Bonetto, costumer Madeleine Fontaine and digital effects supervisor Alain Carsoux-Duboi, and especially to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, whose wonderfully mobile camera catches every nuance and shade. There’s also a marvelous sequence featuring a hospital that’s been moved into a hanger also housing a dirigible–a composition that’s not only extraordinary but, as a result of a hostile intrusion, becomes a nail-biter as well. This is one of those pictures in which one can simply sit back and luxuriate in the wash of pictorial marvels that the director, cast and crew have fashioned, knowing that you’re seeing exactly what they intended and grateful for the opportunity. (At nearly $60 million, it’s one of the most expensive French films ever made, but unlike so many pictures with bloated Hollywood budgets, here every penny is up on the screen.) And Angelo Badalamenti contributes a background score that makes its points without ever overwhelming the images.
As a result of one of the Academy’s many incomprehensible procedural regulations, “A Very Long Engagement” won’t be eligible for nomination as the year’s best foreign-language film come spring. What it deserves is a nod in the best film category instead, and one can only hope the Oscar voters will overcome their California provincialism and see that it gets one.