Very Long Engagement, A (France, 2004) * * * *
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. In French with subtitles. Written by Mr. Jeunet & Guillaume Laurant, from a novel by Sébastien Japrisot. Photography, Bruno Delbonnel. Editing, Herve Schneid. Set designer, Aline Bonetto. Music, Angelo Badalamenti. Producer, Bill Gerber. A Warner Independent Pictures release. 133 minutes. Rated R. Cast: Audrey Tautou (Mathilde), Gaspard Ulliel (Manech), Jean-Pierre Becker (Lieutenant Esperanza), Jodie Foster (Élodie Gordes), Albert Dupontel (Célestin Poux), Clovis Cornillac (Benoît Notre Dame), Marion Cotillard (Tina Lombardi), et al.
Frenchman Jean-Pierre Jeunet made (often with Marc Caro) several very successful short films before the team’s two super-maverick features “Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children” brought the duo international fame. Then came Jeunet’s solo blockbuster “The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain” (2001) that made a household name of both the director and the star, Audrey Tautou. Now, with the 2004 “A Very Long Engagement,” both Jeunet and Tautou reconfirm – he as writer-director-producer, she as superstar -- their standing in the Olympus of movies.
The film, based on a book by the talented Sebastien Japrisot (1931-2003) spans the early 1900s, the first World War (1914-1918) and the very early 1920s. The famous-infamous trench warfare, done with powerful realism hits you from the start and reminds you specifically of Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” of 1957 (when director Jeunet was a little boy), starring Kirk Douglas as the French Colonel Dax who tries –vainly—to save some of his men unfairly condemned for desertion. Because that gem denounced the injustices of higher-up Generals it was banned in France for eighteen years. Savvy film buffs may also connect it with the 1964 “King and Country” a British film by that great American director Joseph Losey.
In Jeunet’s movie, in 1917 five French soldiers accused of self-mutilation in order to escape the horrors of war are virtually condemned to suicide. They must leave the trenches, go to no-man’s land and attack the Germans – in other words, the “poilus” (French equivalent of “G.I.s) are to become corpses.
Mathilde (Tautou) who walks with a childhood, polio-acquired limp, is still convinced that one of the five soldiers, her fiancé Manech (Ulliel) is alive. At war’s end she embarks on a long, complicated/complex search which is colorful, peculiar, desperate, tinged by various types of humor, black and otherwise. Her search includes a fascinating gallery of characters, events and settings – the latter splendid (and digital) reconstructions, such as those of Paris ca. 1920.
At one point Mathilde’s wandering takes her to the Halles, aka ‘the belly of Paris,” the enormous, outdoor food market. (It is now outside the city.) Its depictions are amazing –but then, all depictions are in this movie. At the Halles, Mathilde meets a female vegetable seller who might provide information. The lady looks very much like Jodie Foster. If you sit through the huge list of end-credits you learn that indeed it was Ms. Foster, speaking excellent French, playing most convincingly a French mother of five and doing much else that I cannot rveal.
Mathilde’s quest is the kernel of the movie, yet the film is about a host of things: the horrors and lunacies of war, realities and fantasies, human pride and human degradation, cruelty and kindness, cunning shifts from near-surrealism to naturalism, combat-ravaged sights, footage that can be very personal yet eye-opening, from love to wartime injustices. It benefits from a huge production of the kind one seldom expects from French pictures. At 133 minutes it rivets your attention, moves you and never makes you look at your watch.
The movie has superb, effective photography, an excellent music score, a subtle avoidance of clichés, an original subject that’s deeply human, humane—told by clever, talented makers.
I give it my own Best Movie Oscar, plus several other Oscars too.