The ever-stylish Jeunet reteams with his Amélie star Audrey Tautou to tell another tale of a puckish young woman obsessed with finding her man; however, those expecting the sweet comedy of Amélie will be disappointed: A Very Long Engagement is a mostly somber drama, set against the horrors of World War I, and while it contains many examples of Jeunet's trademark whimsy and surrealism, this time they seem an ill fit with the seriousness of the proceedings.
The film opens with a grim procession through the rain-filled trenches of the French front, as five men who tried to get out of the army via self-inflicted gunshot wounds to their hands are condemned to die. The youngest of the men, a sensitive dreamer named Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), is beloved by his hometown fiancée, Mathilde (Tautou), a sweet-natured girl with a polio limp and, as we soon discover, a dogged determination: for three years later, after the end of the war, refusing to accept the news that her lover was killed on the front lines, Mathilde embarks upon a zigzagging search for Manech, enlisting a private investigator (Ticky Holgado, one of the many Jeunet regulars in the film) to help her find the surviving soldiers in Manech's battallion in order to unearth the truth about his fate.
Through interviews and discoveries, Mathilde slowly starts to piece together the puzzle, but along with a subplot involving a murderous prostitute, lengthy battleground flashbacks, and a large cast of characters that are often difficult to keep track of, somewhere we lose the meaning behind Mathilde's quest. Clearly, Jeunet wants us to love this woman, feeling her loss and understanding what a bloody, brutal thing "The Great War" was, but his detective story - for that is what A Very Long Engagement is - is so convoluted that it sucks the heart out of the film.
Tautou is distressingly straight-faced, so much so that I wasn't sure whether Mathilde really loves this Manech fellow or if she just wants to get to the bottom of things. Which I don't think is the point of the film. It's supposed to be a love story. You're supposed to get out your handkerchiefs by the finale. But I was too distracted by the flashy visuals and the clever gimmicks and the cast of thousands. For much of the film, I was frankly confused as to who was who, or how they factored into Mathilde's quest, and while the script ties it all up nicely, by then I was more interested in how everything fit together than I was about whether this woman finds her missing man.
Like all of Jeunet's films, A Very Long Engagement is visually stunning. And the script and cast (including a random appearance by a French-speaking Jodie Foster, who transforms a glorified cameo into something sensual and daring) are first-rate. This isn't a bad film at all. But ultimately, for all its technical triumphs, I have to call A Very Long Engagement a failure, in that its primary purpose is to pull our heartstrings, but by spending too much energy on structure and style, it shoots itself in the foot. Or shall I say in the hand.