French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a visual whiz adept at baroque tales with simplistic characters. When the story is dessert—the meringue of Amélie or the dark chocolate of Delicatessen—Jeunet's fairy-tale panache is hard to resist. A Very Long Engagement proves that when Jeunet attempts to achieve dramatic heft, with no commensurate change in style, he falls distressingly short.
With Sébastien Japrisot's novel Un long dimanche de fiancailles as his source material, Jeunet goes for a grim fairy tale, decorated with fanciful bits of invention at odds with the emotional core of the story. Audrey Tautou, late of Amélie, stars as Mathilde, a country girl who refuses to believe that her boyfriend Manech (Gaspard Ulliel)—crazed, lost, and presumed dead on the WWI front—has actually died. She plays childish mind games to decide if he's dead or not, but her soul tells her he's out there waiting for her to find him.
From a veteran with first-hand knowledge, Mathilde learns that Manech's supposed execution (by expulsion from the Paths of Glory trenches) involved four other men, all accused of attempted desertion by self-mutilation. Armed with the lead she needs to investigate Manech's whereabouts, dead or alive, the polio-stricken Mathilde sics comically enthusiastic private investigator Germain Pire (Ticky Holgado) onto the case, but a mystery woman named Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard) is also on the loose, killing witnesses for her own private reason.
The very long investigation hopscotches through various accounts of the past: warm memories of the couple's romance (from childhood to young adulthood), the the condemned soldiers' histories, and harrowing fragments of the war and fateful execution. Jeunet and co-scripter Guillaume Laurant also shift sideways to take in the parallel paths of Mathilde's investigation and that of Tina.
Each narrative avenue gives Jeunet opportunity for the extraneous detail he loves: a barman's nutcracking appendage, an unnecessarily complicated method of firing a gun, an exploding-zeppelin firestorm. Some of Jeunet's over-insistent images actually have a point: a fractured Jesus statue overlooking the trenches and dangling from its impaled hand (compared to the deserters' unanimous choice of injuring their palms), fields of white crosses, an albatross flying against the wind, and a lighthouse to represent the potency and salvation of the lovers' bond.
The film's visual virtuosity—abetted by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel—gives the film the quality of a mind's-eye bedtime story, and perhaps that's enough. But I longed for an emotional involvement with the characters which I almost never felt. In Amélie, Tautou worked her moon-face into beatific smiles and gloomy pouts, but she's a porcelain doll here, rarely achieving any believable emotion in the pivotal role. Like Tautou, Ulliel (Strayed) pops open his doe-eyes: wide, misty, or crazy as the plot demands.
The supporting players—including Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Jerome Kircher, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, and Chantal Neuwirth and Jeunet vet Dominique Pinon as Mathilde's parents—have a bit more flavor. Jodie Foster—in her first French-speaking screen role—headlines a brief segment more strikingly real (perhaps by her own virtue) than anything seen in the rest of the film. Even the great composer Angelo Badalamenti succumbs to the film's moistness.
Rythmically, Jeunet's film feels like an endless string of showy commercials. The story's pseudo-mystical bent only worsens the remoteness, though taken strictly as a story and not an experience, the punnily titled A Very Long Engagement communicates the horror of war and the virtues of love and determination. Suffused with the unbearable thought of abandoning hope, Mathilde listens to one veteran tell her, "Death moves in mysterious ways," and so too does Jeunet's handsome near-miss film.