Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Stars: Audrey Tatou, Gaspard Ulliel, Jean-Pierre Becker, Dominique Bettenfeld, Clovis Cornillac, Marion Cotillard, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Julie Depardieu, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Andre Dussollier, Jodie Foster, Ticky Holgardo, Tcheky Karyo, Jerome Kircher, Denis Lavant, Chantal Neuwirth, Dominique Pinon, Jean-Paul Rouve, Michele Vuillermoz
Visually sumptuous, and spectacular in its sweep and scope, but still possessed of the poetic intimacy of the great romantic dramas like Doctor Zhivago, A Very Long Engagement is an epic piece of cinema that could have come from David Lean at his best. Instead this fabulous weepie, somewhat surprisingly, comes from French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, best known for his bizarre Delicatessen and more recently the sweet and sentimental Amelie.
Re-united with Audrey Tatou, his ravishing lead from Amelie, Jeunet brings to the screen the extraordinary journey of Mathilde, a woman whose fiance Manech was believed executed during World War I for the crime of willfully wounding himself to avoid facing further combat and possible death in the foul trenches of the front line. But, driven by unwavering faith and optimism, Mathilde refuses to believe the love of her life is dead and begins an exhaustive and painful search for the truth. She tracks down witnesses to the events that transpired on that fateful day, and slowly pieces together the truth of what really happened to Manech. In Rashomon-like fashion, each version of the story tells a slightly different variation, until all the pieces of the mosaic come together in heart-wrenching fashion.
Working without his usual collaborator Marc Caro, Jeunet is able to reel in his usual grotesque excesses and over-the-top visual imagery to produce a very stylish and ultimately moving melodramatic tale of love, hope and redemption, staged against the horrors of war. His direction is assured, and he even manages to find quirky touches of comedy to lighten the material at appropriate moments. His flamboyant style, usual pyrotechnics and visual flourishes do not distract from the film’s potent message about the futility and insanity of war. Some of the war scenes are quite graphic and and gory, but they also serve the film’s underlying themes very well. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography imbues the film with a sense of warmth, while long-time David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti produces a haunting score that underscores the drama perfectly.
But the real strength of the film is the sensational performance from the beautiful, child-like Tatou, who brilliantly captures Mathilde’s strength, sense of conviction and steely determination to seek out the truth. Jeunet fleshes out the impressive cast with a number of familiar faces, including some of his regulars, and a surprising guest appearance from Jodie Foster.
A Very Long Engagement is the sort of epic that Hollywood, with its love of shallow entertainment for the popcorn crowd, rarely produces, and movie goers in search of something more substantial in both quality and thematic structure, should rejoice.