'Long Engagement': A Losing Battle

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2004

"A VERY LONG Engagement" is Jean-Pierre Jeunet's first film since the glorious "Amelie." You can still feel the balmy effect of that previous movie, and, to some extent, that's part of the trouble.

"Engagement," after all, stars "Amelie's" Audrey Tautou. She plays, once again, a headstrong, courageous and highly romantic hero searching for her only true love. And for the second time, the audience is treated to strange-looking characters and a sort of omniscient whimsy about the whole thing.

This time, however, more and different things are asked of us. It's set on a bigger canvas, for one. And there's a deeper dose of realism, for another. The story's set during World War I, when trench duty, unyielding mud, senseless slaughter and insane commands from the dysfunctional French leadership are routine. Conditions are so awful that many soldiers intentionally maim their hands so they'll be discharged and saved from almost certain death. When five wounded soldiers -- among them, the sweet, fair-haired Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) -- are accused of this cynical act, they are commanded to march to the front and take their chances in no man's land. It's their commander's (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) grim sense of poetic justice.

No one is sure what happens to them. It's hard to see from those below-ground-level trenches. They become lost in the confusion of ongoing warfare.

A year later, Mathilde (Tautou) is still wondering what happened to her boyfriend, Manech, who went by the nickname Cornflower. Is he alive? Her heart tells her he survived, and so do certain superstitious signs she likes to devise. So Mathilde hires a Parisian detective, Germain Pire (Ticky Holgado), who mounts an impressive campaign to piece together the events of that strange day. He and Mathilde trace as many of the survivors and their loved ones or acquaintances as possible, following convoluted trails of testimony. With each discovery, the story of what happened changes, much in the manner of Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon."

As if Mathilde and Germain's quest weren't detailed enough, they cross paths with Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard), a vengeful hooker from Corsica, who has some scores to settle. There's also an extended sequence in which Mathilde meets with Elodie Gordes (Jodie Foster, not only a talented actor but an assured French speaker, it turns out), who has a traumatic wartime story to tell. Foster's performance is so good, we almost forget the film's central purpose. And then there is the life Mathilde leads with her eccentric Uncle Sylvain (Dominique Pinon) and Aunt Benedicte (Chantal Neuwirth).

Jeunet, as always, pushes the eccentric/quirky factor whenever possible. Mathilde, for starters, has a pronounced limp resulting from polio, and she plays the tuba. There's a dog with a flatulence problem, and we meet a postman whose daily, skidding arrival at Sylvain's doorstep becomes a comedic motif.

It's a pleasure to watch Jeunet's direction. (He also made "Delicatessen," "The City of Lost Children," and the wonderfully nonformulaic "Alien: Resurrection.") There's a scene involving a zeppelin, moored inside a makeshift hospital building and facing an imminent explosion, that is a fantastic, suspense-filled spectacle. And details of the battlefront, which we return to often, are etched with staggering detail.

But unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), movies tend to thrive on simplicity and focus; novels are freer to maneuver in whatever direction or directions they please. In its zeal to honor Sebastien Japrisot's popular book ("Un Long Dimanche de Fian├žailles"), "Engagement" simply disappears inside its own enormous, intricate and ambitious design. And the emotional effect (which came so effortlessly in "Amelie") is surprisingly muted. It could be that two or three viewings would help the movie emerge, so one could effortlessly differentiate the characters and their plotlines, and see the beautiful big picture. But for this one-time viewer at least, Jeunet's movie is a game of great singles inside an overextended ballgame.

A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT (R, 134 minutes) -- Contains violence and sexual scenes. In French with subtitles. Area theaters.

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