War and love

Rated 4.0

Audrey Tautou and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the actress and writer-director who gave us the extravagantly heady entertainment of Amèlie a couple of years back, have returned with another spectacularly passionate and richly furnished tale.

Their A Very Long Engagement, adapted by Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant from a novel by Sebastien Japrisot, is an off-beat love story of sorts that seemingly takes all of France in the inglorious period of World War I as its setting. Tautou plays Mathilde, a self-possessed orphan of the provinces whose childhood sweetheart Maneche (Gaspard Ulliel) is called away to war and believed killed in perplexing circumstances.

But Mathilde refuses to credit mere hearsay, and when conflicting reports on the last sightings of Maneche begin to surface, she launches her own improvised post-war investigation in full hope of finding her beloved still alive. Her quest becomes a kind of detective mystery that leads her across the trails of a good many other related stories—internal politics and misconduct within the war zone, the quest for revenge of one Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard), mixtures of cynicism and guilt among surviving soldiers from Maneche’s unit.

Jeunet trots out an array of epic-scale scenes—some sweeping battle action and an escalating crisis in a zeppelin hangar doubling as a field hospital, in particular—and he has a large and distinctive cast peppered with star-quality actors in small but telling roles (Jodie Foster, Tcheky Karyo, Dominique Pinon, Denis Lavant, Andre Dussolier, Ticky Holgado, Elina Lowenstein, etc.). But the key elements of the film’s power seem to reside primarily in the passionate authority of Tautou’s undaunted gaze and in the exhilarating visual poetry of Jeunet’s airborne camera magic.

The exuberant grotesquerie of Jeunet’s films with Marc Caro (Delicatessen and City of Lost Children) and the sentimental kitchiness of Amèlie turn up again in various forms. But here too the reckless romanticism of Jeunet’s imagery, especially as aided and abetted by the fearless devotions of Tautou, generates a very powerful charm.