A Very Long Engagement

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Written by Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant

With Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Marion Cotillard, Jerome Kircher, Jodie Foster

With the puckish Amelie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet enjoyed a success in America that few French directors have ever achieved. The movie opened in New York two months after the Twin Towers fell, and became a word-of-mouth hit during the holidays as filmgoers embraced its fanciful story of a gamine cafe worker (Audrey Tautou) whose secret acts of kindness touch the lives of those around her. Tautou was anointed by entertainment magazines as the new Audrey Hepburn, Amelie was nominated for five Oscars, and by the following summer it had grossed $33 million in the U.S.–a handsome take for a foreign release.

A Very Long Engagement reunites Jeunet and Tautou, and though it’s positioned as a holiday release, Amelie fans in a festive mood might be shocked by its grim scenes of World War I trench warfare (its opening image is a bomb-damaged crucifix with the shattered torso of Christ dangling from one hand). The French command, faced with a rash of enlisted men mutilating themselves to avoid service, sentences five culprits to be marched up to the front lines in the Somme valley and tossed into no-man’s-land, where they’ll be slaughtered by the Germans. Based on Sebastien Japrisot’s 1991 novel Un long dimanche de fiancailles, Jeunet’s adaptation is a fierce antiwar statement in the style of Paths of Glory and All Quiet on the Western Front, though like its doomed soldiers A Very Long Engagement has been abandoned by its nation. Last month a French court declared the movie ineligible for film festivals as a French release because its production company, 2003 Productions, is one-third owned by an American studio, Warner Brothers.

French-American relations can’t be so bad if Hollywood is helping to produce multimillion-dollar antiwar movies in French. And Jeunet deserves credit for spending his Amelie capital on an ambitious project that challenges his narrative skills–Japrisot’s novel is an engrossing but fiendishly complicated mystery. In the novel, all five soldiers are declared killed in action, but two and a half years after the incident a French veteran contacts Mathilde, whose fiance, Manech, was the youngest condemned man. The veteran gives Mathilde a packet of letters the men dictated before they were tossed over the lines, and his story convinces her that Manech may still be alive. As her investigation stretches over five years the narrative becomes a web of bitter and heartbreaking memories circling around the same series of events until Manech’s fate is finally revealed. The novel functions as love story as well as a mystery, but it’s also a collection of voices giving witness to the impact of war.

Jeunet recently told Premiere magazine that he’s coveted the film rights to Japrisot’s novel since it was first published, and one can easily see why. Pieced together from letters, notes, documents, and recovered objects, the story speaks to Jeunet’s fascination with totems and talismans, like the long-forgotten tin of toys that Amelie finds and returns to its middle-aged owner. The fateful romance at its core must have seemed an ideal way to cast Tautou once more as a lovelorn young woman. And Jeunet says he relished the challenge of re-creating trench warfare in all its muddy horror. Certainly his and Marc Caro’s bizarre 1995 fantasy The City of Lost Children proves him capable of framing strange and arresting images. A Very Long Engagement is strikingly beautiful, shifting between sepia-toned sequences of Tautou pursuing her leads and ghostly blue shots of winding trenches and the surrounding destruction.

Jeunet and his frequent screenwriting collaborator, Guillaume Laurant, have cut the number of major characters in half–to a still sizable 16–and wrestle Mathilde’s (Tautou) lengthy investigation into a story with two subplots: a series of mysterious murders that occur as she gathers clues, and a love triangle involving Bastoche (Jerome Kircher), the oldest of the condemned soldiers. The varying story lines are fluidly integrated using voice-overs, faux archival footage, jump cuts to different times and locations, and frenetic montage sequences that are set in the frame like old cameos. But perhaps by necessity Jeunet and Laurant have homogenized the book’s voices. The novel’s layered revelations about the soldiers’ fates are distilled into a standard series of chronological flashbacks.

What they cut from the novel, however, doesn’t cause as many problems as what they add, which is often too bizarre or too whimsical for a story about death. Japrisot’s Mathilde can be rude and aggressive, angered by what she learns about the war and turning that anger toward others. But Tautou, perhaps eager to reconnect with American audiences, seems to fight the urge to play cute. Jeunet gives Mathilde a tuba to play–an instrument she’s chosen because it sounds like a distress call–and comically poses her with it in front of a lighthouse where she and Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) frolicked as children. Mathilde is confined to a wheelchair in both the book and movie, but in the film Tautou can walk easily enough for a wacky Lucille Ball scene in which she stands on top of a chair to reach a forbidden document in the office of war records.

Jeunet indulges his taste for the carnivalesque as Mathilde learns the story of Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard), who’s launched her own investigation into the soldiers’ deaths, and whose story requires me to issue a spoiler alert. Tina’s pimp and lover, Angel, was one of the condemned men, and she seeks revenge against the officers who wronged him. In an overwrought scene scored to a Verdi opera, she ties up a grossly obese commandant (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) for some S-M play but then fires a pistol over his head at a mirror, which drops lethal shards of glass deep into his torso. She confronts a second victim in a dark alley and kills him with a concealed pistol that she fires by pulling on a chain attached to her eyeglasses.

Along with such absurd, extravagant moments are faint glimpses of the sort of drama Jeunet’s film could have been. I was particularly taken by the sequence featuring Bastoche, who has an affair with the wife of his friend Gordes (Jean-Pierre Darroussin). Impotent but a father of five by marriage, Gordes arranges a sexual liaison between Bastoche and his wife, Elodie (Jodie Foster, in her French-speaking debut), so that she’ll give him a sixth child and the army will relieve him of combat duty. Bastoche visits Elodie on leave–their quiet, uncomfortable first meeting in the Gordeses’ apartment is one of the best-acted scenes in the movie–and Elodie blossoms in his company. After Bastoche returns to the front, Gordes falls miserably prey to his own jealousy. The drama unfolds in a matter of minutes, but it’s more compelling than Tautou’s rarefied pursuit of her childhood sweetheart.

Slow and patient explorations of human feeling aren’t what Jeunet does best; he seems more interested in the large pictorial moment, like the gratuitous fireball he inserts toward the end of the film. Benoit Notre-Dame (Clovis Cornillac), the last of the condemned men, escapes the front and enters a hospital set up in an air hangar. Nobody seems concerned about the giant zeppelin floating overhead, though as soon as Notre-Dame arrives, the hangar’s bombarded by the Germans. The ropes mooring the zeppelin break and it floats upward until it detonates a shell lodged in the roof of the hangar, erupting in a cloud of orange flame. It’s an absurd spectacle that stops the story in its tracks and tears us farther away from the characters’ flinty wisdom. But it does prove that even a French director can learn how to spend American money.

A Very Long Engagement

When: Fri-Thu 2:45, 4:10, 5:45, 7:10, 8:45, and 10 PM; Fri-Sun also 11:45 AM, 1:20 PM

Where: Landmark’s Century Centre, 2828 N. Clark

Price: $7-$9.50

Info: 773-444-3456