After a decade-long romance, Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) and Manich (Gaspard Ulliel) are finally ready to be married. However, the outbreak of World War I has other plans for Manich, and sends him off into battle where he encounters front-line horrors beyond his comprehension. When news of Manich's death reaches Mathilde, she spends the next years of her life trying to prove he is still alive, because she simply doesn't believe he is dead.
The opening scenes of "A Very Long Engagement" (IMDb listing) take the viewer through Manich's regiment in a fashion strikingly reminiscent of the way the characters were introduced in "Amelie," visionary filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 breakthrough. As the camera tracks uncontrollably, and the edits fly fast, the audience is allowed a rare peek into the frame of mind and backstory of each main character. It's done in such a dazzling, familiar fashion that it appears Jeunet has ideas to assemble a sequel to "Amelie" in place of the promised war romance of "Engagement."
However, "Engagement" is no "Amelie," which seems to frustrate Jeunet as much as challenge him. His new film is a smorgasbord of ideas, themes and emotions, all presented with the meticulous visual detail that has become the filmmaker's trademark. As thrilling a feast for the eyes "Engagement" is, Jeunet wants to touch the heart and chill the soul as well, which renders the film disjointed and murky when it's clear Jeunet's intentions are far more fanciful.
The centerpieces of "Engagement" are the sequences set on the battlefields of WWI, which are visualized as muddy, entrenched landscapes of misery. Innocence and vitality are the payments owed to this confrontation, and Jeunet nails these sequences with his stark honesty in detailing the sadistic, blood-spattered horrors of war, and the sheer madness of combat. Jeunet even surpasses Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" when it comes to truly capturing the blitzkrieg of conflict, taking the film miles away from a simple "you are there" approach of being stuck in the middle of warfare, to a "you don't want to be there" sensation that is captured with an alarming visceral energy. War is hell, but for Jeunet, it's the end of humanity.
The romantic side of "Engagement" is handled with less authority (unlike in Vincent Ward's eerily similar, flat-out brilliant "Map of the Human Heart"). Jeunet is relying on his "Amelie" star, Audrey Tautou, to bring heart to this icy tale, and the actress is receptive to this challenge. Wisely choosing a hairstyle that covers her elf-like ears, Jeunet is less reliant on Tautou's adorability factor this time around, allowing the actress to play a wiser, more battle weary character. It's a good, complicated performance from Tautou, but it can't prop up the lighter, mystery-flavored section of the story as much as Jeunet wants to think it can. And it certainly doesn't agree with the war film mood.
A fun element comes via a small supporting performance from Jodie Foster, here cast as a wife and lover to companions in Manich's condemned brigade. Foster, who performs her role entirely in French, brings exactly what this films needs -- acting starpower -- at exactly the right moment.
"A Very Long Engagement," with all its twists and complicated, inexplicable turns, only halfway succeeds in its intention to create a sweeping historical romance. It is a powerful and vivid motion picture, but rarely, if ever, does it capture the heart.
Filmfodder Grade: B-