These are challenging times for movie critics, insofar as there are so many virtuoso film technicians around and so few genuine film artists. Is it pretentious to claim that I can discern the difference? Bien sur! Zat ees why I am ze critic, no? Someone needs to point out that no matter how many lollapalooza kaleidoscopic montages Baz Luhrmann can paste together on his computer, he wouldn't know a great dance number if it bit him on ze derriere. Then there is Jean-Pierre Jeunet. … Tiens, he is a tricky one. Along with much of the world, I was enchanted by the first half-hour of Amélie, but an additional 90 minutes of frisky-French gamine whimsy made my tummy ache. Jeunet will always prefer the show-off frame to something simpler and more direct. On the other hand, some show-offs have a lot to show.
When he's on his game, Jeunet has a gift for the lyrical, mysterious long shot that recalls the F.W. Murnau of Sunrise; a sense of flow pointed up by an almost spiritual touch with a dolly; and a limitless palette of ambers, umbers, sepias, siennas. The color brown has rarely been more dazzling than in A Very Long Engagement (Warner Independent Pictures), Jeunet's new World War I picture, which mixes garish modernist horror, sentimental romance, and—oui, oui—gamine whimsy in roughly equal proportions, yet somehow makes it all seem of a piece.
It helps that the movie is based on a first-rate novel by Sebastien Japrisot. (My wife was so crazy about the book that she snapped up the paperback rights in the mid '90s, when she was an editor at Plume.) It's a disarming mixture of omniscient fairy-tale narrative (sardonic, given the high level of senseless carnage) and first-person letters—eyewitness accounts of the war from deep inside the fog. It begins with five French soldiers being marched to the bloody front, all convicted of mutilating themselves to get sent home. (One is innocent, having shot himself by accident, but any nonlethal hand wound is presumed to be the upshot of treasonous cowardice.) To make an example of the five, someone at the top decides to have them dumped in the no-man's land between the French and German lines—a punishment that fills the majority of French soldiers (and a good portion of the onlooking Germans) with disgust.
What happens to the five is obscured by the onlookers' limited vantage, as well as shells, smoke, strafing planes, and a subsequent massacre of the French troops. Many are convinced that all five men died; others believe that one or two somehow made it out of that inferno alive. More than a year after the war has ended, Mathilde (played onscreen by Audrey Tautou of Amélie) is sure that her fiance, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel)—a blond, blue-eyed lad dubbed "Cornflower" by the others—is out there somewhere. She knows that he was traumatized (to put it mildly) after having been showered with the innards of his best friend, and that he's missing at very least a few fingers. But she feels a connection to him, which she even tests in quaint ways—for example, if her uncle knocks on her bedroom door before the cat jumps off the bed and the second hand reaches the 12, it means that Manech is alive
Mathilde engages a private investigator and, through long missives and trips to interview witnesses, begins to piece together her fiance's last known hours. She also discovers that she has a sort of doppelgänger: a Corsican prostitute named Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard) pursuing a parallel investigation for another of the five—and murdering anyone who did her own beloved mate wrong. (Lombardi's smashing Grand Guignol killings are not in the book but make for entertaining interludes in the movie. That said, they jar the perspective: Everything else is relayed to our heroine directly.)
It's often said that movies have been dumbed down in the last few decades, and it's true that mainstream viewers have less and less experience with flawed or downright disagreeable protagonists. But the narratives themselves have actually gotten more intricate—more novelistic. (It helps that narration, for a long while a bugaboo, has come back into fashion with a vengeance.) The structure of Jeunet's film doesn't mirror Japrisot's novel exactly, but it comes close. Characters—one of them played, in a pleasant surprise, by Jodie Foster, speaking French like a native, at least to these non-native (tin) ears—pick up the thread, relay what they remember, then disappear. Events are replayed from different points of view, but not in the service of some Rashomon-like unknowability principle. The truth, as they say, is out there, but it's nearly impossible to dig up from a killing ground already filled in and planted over.
A Very Long Engagement is a beautiful, elegant, satisfying film: Jeunet is lyrical even when gliding through vast, infernal trenches past hideously mutilated bodies. It's possible that his touch is too limpid, too legato, for this level of horror, but I responded to the tension between his technique and what he was showing: It gave it the feeling of a macabre fable. It is one of those mixed blessings, however, that Jeunet's muse, Audrey Tautou, is such a great camera subject and looks cuter in a hat than anyone alive. Her character had polio as a child and walks with a limp—but what an adorable, metronomical limp, not so very different from that adorable, metronomical bob in her last collaboration with Jeunet. That's the downside to all this stylishness: that A Very Long Engagement is Amélie Goes to War.