A Very Long Engagement reunites actress Audrey Tautou with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet for a very different sort of movie than their previous success, the whimsical romantic comedy Amelie. This time the setting is World War I, and while the ostensible story is one of undying love, there’s enough graphic (albeit computer-enhanced) footage of the horror and absurdity of war to make Jeunet’s hyper-clever and pictorially appealing style seem at odds with the material. It’s as if he can’t help but give spilt viscera an aesthetically appealing gloss and make every devastating explosion look really cool.
Tautou plays Mathilde, a young woman who refuses to believe that her fiance, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), has been killed in the war. The way she’s presented is an extension of Jeunet’s willful idealization of reality; as in Amelie she seems to be a fetish object for the director, the seductive gamine, her pouty upper lip and wide eyes filmed in loving close-up. One need only see Tautou in a non-Jeunet directed film — He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not or Pretty Dirty Things — to see how easily she can look ordinary, even a little gawky, under a less adoring gaze.
From her investigation into her fiance’s alleged death, Mathilde learns that he was one of five soldiers court-martialed for self-mutilation to avoid combat. The sentence for their crimes was banishment to the no-man’s land between the French and German lines — certain death, perhaps, but no one actually sees Manech die. What follows is a densely plotted mystery (the script is adapted from a novel by French crime novelist Jean Baptiste Rossi, writing under a pseudonym) as Mathilde tracks down survivors of Manech’s battalion and gets partial and sometimes contradictory accounts of what really happened.
Jeunet has taken the time in this two-hour-plus film to mix the comic and the tragic via a gallery of characters ranging from the seemingly bogus private investigator Mathilde hires to a poignant turn by Jodie Foster (speaking fluent French) as the mistress of one of the five condemned soldiers. But Jeunet’s style is more appropriate for grand gestures and large, sweeping emotions; just as the images become more digitally dicked-with, the characters’ more intimate feelings come to seem more simulated as well. There’s a lot of eye candy here, but the story, buried beneath the gloss, not only isn’t moving, it barely sticks; it begins to evaporate before you even get out of the lobby.
In French with English subtitles. Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.