A Very Long Engagement

on November 26, 2004 by Sheri Linden
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"A Very Long Engagement" offers more evidence of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's affection for serpentine storytelling, replete with offbeat characters, whimsical asides and cinematic dazzle. But while his last film, "Amelie," spun a weightless confection, here the atrocities of World War I temper the whimsy, infusing the drama (based on the novel by Sebastien Japrisot) with a potent ambivalence.

At the center of the tale are five French soldiers condemned for self-mutilation. In all but one case (an accident) they've shot themselves in order to be sent home from the front. Instead they're marched to a trench with the unlikely name of Bingo Crepuscule, from which they'll be sent into no man's land to await death by crossfire. But four years after the war, Mathilde ("Amelie" star Audrey Tautou), the fiancée of Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), the youngest of the five men, remains unconvinced that he's dead. Spurred by an "Amelie"-reminiscent box of keepsakes, she embarks on a search for the survivors of Bingo Crepuscule, aided--more or less--by a sad-sack detective (Ticky Holgado). Conducting a parallel investigation is the vengeful girlfriend of one of the soldiers, Tina (Marion Cotillard), a murderous master of disguise.

Mathilde, whose childhood polio left her with a limp, isn't above using a wheelchair prop as a sympathy ploy to get into the army's Paris archives. Back in Brittany, her aunt and uncle (Chantal Neuwirth and Dominique Pinon) are supportive of her single-minded search, even while they feel her "sadness rubbing off." As the linchpin of the colorful, sprawling ensemble, Tautou conveys a playful mix of fierce determination and childish superstition. Of the many stories her search uncovers, the strongest concerns a triangle involving the Polish wife of one of the soldiers (Jodie Foster) and yet another desperate, misbegotten scheme to escape the endless torment of trench warfare.

The multiple narrative strands dilute the urgency of the central romance, and at times the film's energy flags. But Jeunet has created a swirling mosaic in which such minutiae as a tuba's mournful bleat and a barkeep's mechanical wooden hand resonate with the hope and horror of the newly modern world of the early 20th century, born of the brutalities of the war to end all wars. Starring Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Dominique Pinon, Chantal Neuwirth, Andre Dussolier, Ticky Holgado, Jerome Kircher and Marion Cotillard and Jodie Foster. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant. Produced by Angus Finney and Jean-Louis Monthieux. A Warner Independent release. Period romantic drama. French-language; subtitled. Rated R for violence and sexuality. Running time: 133 min

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