You can't have a Great War without a Great Love Story. The muddy trenches, bloody battlefields, barbed wire, poison gas, and senseless death can only get a movie so far. Accordingly, for his follow-up to Amélie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet brings out the heavy artillery in A Very Long Engagement, which opens Friday, Dec. 17, at the Egyptian. Again his weapon of choice is Audrey Tautou, and again she's intrepidly on the trail of her elusive beloved. And again she's caught up in a clockwork mechanism of coincidence, chance, and hidden connections that brings her, in the most roundabout fashion, to her just reward. There's even another little box of clues for her to follow.
Based on a novel by Sébastien Japrisot, Engagement feels like a darker, death-tinged variation on Amélie's comic interconnectedness. The latter picture was aggressively light and whimsical—a helium-fueled bulldozer of charm that some, but not I, found overbearing. (Submit to Amélie or suffer the consequences!) Engagement rides heavier on its springs, like a corpse-stuffed hearse. French soldiers die in droves for no good reason, and as heroine Mathilde (Tautou) pursues her lost love, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), reported killed at the front, the darkness often threatens to snuff her inner light. (In Amélie, you felt Tautou's unquenchable energy was perhaps powering the entire City of Lights.)
The story is a doozy. Jeunet throws dozens of names and faces at the viewer, most of them covered with the grime of World War I. Basically, Manech and four other soldiers charged with self-inflicting their wounds are shoved out into no-man's land, where the Germans will supposedly handle the French's dirty work. Manech is declared dead three years later, but Mathilde refuses to accept the news. She hires a private detective and embarks on her own investigation of the condemned quintet. We then shift back and forth between her hunt and the various possibilities she discovers for the men before and after their final minutes. In their sections, there's no color but mud; in hers, it's all golden and sepia-toned. Beyond the young lovers, don't bother trying to keep track of other names. My notes soon devolved into Big Guy With Little Mustache and Little Guy With Big Mustache, though some characters are also clean-shaven.
AS WITH AMÉLIE, whimsy and digression are the order of the day. Living in a picturesque cottage on the scenic Brittany coast isn't enough for Mathilde, an orphan; she has a lame leg and limps with her brace down to the seaside, where she plays tuba in the ocean breeze. To track down her precious Manech means first following the paper trail of the four other condemned men. Mystery leads to mystery, and tangent to tangent. Important clues include albatross wings, flapping white underwear, and three m's. One pair of German boots, lifted from a stiff, houses several pairs of different feet—all leading in different directions for Mathilde to trace.
Mathilde has a dark double, too, an ingenious whore called Tina, who is in love with one of the condemned (a Corsican). Hers is a vengeful search, unlike Mathilde's hopeful quest, which punishes those French officers who sentenced the five to death. She's a Rube Goldberg killer and a welcome, astringent relief from Mathilde's unending sweetness and patience. Then, in another welcome surprise—and it's funny how the men, particularly dim, bumbling Manech, are upstaged by the stronger women—Jodie Foster shows up as a war widow of one of the missing five. Acting in flawless French, she firmly anchors a subplot that almost demands its own movie.
This is a problem for Jeunet, and for Engagement as a whole. Five (seemingly) doomed men have five complicated stories to tell; and no matter how much they intertwine for Mathilde, there's too much telling for Jeunet to do. For Jeunet, every minor character and every little detail has to have significance; his fastidiousness is admirable but also wearying.
Still, the film is generally lovely to look at, and Jeunet's visual wit is undiminished from, if less frivolous than, Delicatessen. The soldiers' self-inflicted hand wounds are both comic and horrifying; in this war movie, death often seems like a pie to the face. A wooden hand is amusingly employed to crack walnuts. There's a terrific sequence with a hydrogen balloon tethered over a field hospital, and Jeunet ardently re-creates the lost Paris of the '20s with modern CGI.
Tautou is lovely, too, though not quite so dynamic as to keep up with the rest of the film. She was more actively involved in Amélie, while here she makes a lot of phone calls, reads a lot of letters, and receives a lot of telegrams from a clumsy bike messenger. She's serenely secretarial, so confident in Manech's survival that her determination begins to look like dementia. You don't want her to be wrong, but neither are you sure that you want to follow her all the way to being right.