"A Very Long Engagement" is equal parts love story, war movie, and detective story. The screenplay would have made a good conventional historical epic, but the director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, has no interest in telling a story straight. His movie is an admixture of the beautiful and grisly, the tragic and the comic. Jeunet is an exaggerator - an organ grinder whose characters dance to a strange tune. Sometimes, I was pleasantly put off balance; sometimes, I was just put off.
"A Very Long Engagement" is a reteaming of Jeunet and the actress Audrey Tatou. She plays Mathildé, a faithful lover whose fiancé went missing three years ago in the trenches of World War I. But she is certain that if Manech were dead, she would know it.
Mathildé learns that five soldiers, unable to withstand the madness of the war, tried to buy a ticket home by shooting their own hands. They were found out, tried as deserters, and sentenced to death. One of these was her Manech, a sweet-faced Gaspard Ulliel. He was 20 years old. The five men were sent to Bingo Crepuscule, a godforsaken trench on the frontline.
In 1917, the French and the Germans were dug in, stalemated for years. Jeunet quotes Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" as the French soldiers prepare their bayonets for a charge that will surely kill them all. The five deserters are thrown out first, unarmed, into the no-mans land between the lines.
Mathildé's investigation leads her to a series of colorful characters. There is a man with a mechanical wooden hand he uses as a nutcracker. There is a femme fatale dressed as a nun, brandishing a syringe of syphilitic blood. Even Jodie Foster shows up, speaking French like a native. Each of these possess a piece of the puzzle. We see a series of intricate flashbacks, which can be hard to follow, unless you're better with French names than I am.
The best flashbacks are of Mathildé and Manech's courtship. They're idealized lovers, so we don't connect with them beyond our affection for sweetness and youth. But archetypes work for a fantasy, and this is a more successful one than Jeunet's "City of Lost Children". Director of photography Bruno Delbonnel uses a sepia tone, inspired by old, yellowed photographs. He loves texture: Mathilde's lace, the crust of a quiche, the rain and blood of the battlefield. I could have watched another two hours of this.
Audrey Tatou is the perfect Jeunet heroine. She has a face like Giulietta Masina's: doe-eyed, a little boyish, beautiful, sweet, funny, and sad. In Jeunet's "Delicatessen," a clown plays a saw as a musical instrument. Here, Mathildé sits on the cliffs by the sea and plays the tuba. These images strike a precise ironic chord, which in "A Very Long Engagement" resolves in an ending of exquisite balance. I wasn't always moved, but virtuosity can be its own reward, and beauty is reason enough to shoot a film.
"A Very Long Engagement" is playing in French with English subtitles at Kerasotes Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.