The title and the personnel may seem to threaten another kandy-kolored panorama of retro-Parisian romantic whimsy, but the inevitable cinematic reunion of the director (Jean-Pierre Jeunet) and star (Audrey Tautou) of the international feel-good frenzy Amélie drains the Crayola hues of expectation right from the strikingly grim opening-credit sequence. (Foreboding sans serif typography flickers in the dark as Angelo Badalamenti’s score broods in sympathy with a mildewy wall in pelting rain.) With A Very Long Engagement, Jeunet’s grand subject is still fabuleux destin, but this time he’s duty-bound to the late Sébastien Japrisot’s source novel and humbled by a partial setting in the wretched trenches of World War I, where he’s tethered to earth by a boggy palette (evoking Jeunet’s earlier, giddy-grotesque collaborations with Marc Caro, 1991’s Delicatessen and 1995’s The City of Lost Children).
Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) is one of a quintet of French soldiers court-martialed for self-injury (they’ve all shot themselves, or conspired to be shot, in the hand) and left for dead in no-man’s-land. Of course, his sweetheart from childhood, Mathilde (Tautou), instinctively suspects at war’s end that Manech still lives. Pretty and plucky with a bum leg, tuba-playing Mathilde launches a single-minded investigation into the five men’s fates, a convoluted and contradictory netting of officer corruption, swapped IDs, and loyal womenfolk driven to extremes. Her flashback-laden detective work leads the exquisitely upholstered Mathilde through an impeccably designed series of teeming art nouveau interiors, while CGI aficionado Jeunet reanimates the streets of 1920s Paris with seamless blue-screen canvases.
A Very Long Engagement is boldly aspirational. It’s Jeunet’s stab at Paths of Glory, dipped in a sepia bath and halfway wrenched into a women’s picture. Jeunet’s directorial hallmark is the surface bustle of optical razzmatazz—a terrible beauty is born even when a hydrogen zeppelin catches fire in a makeshift frontline hospital. But narrative thrust has never been the director’s strong suit, and the movie gridlocks amid its crowds of characters, backstories, detours, and twists; the squealing gears of heavy plot machinery eventually drown out much else.
Ulliel, who rippled with sinewy danger in André Téchiné’s wartime Strayed, can only simper and shuffle along as the holy-innocent grunt betrothed to Mathilde, who herself represents the frail but resolute archetype of feminine strength that Lillian Gish might have played in a contemporary silent melodrama. (Tautou still does that thing where she bugs her eyes out and scrunches her lips together in a smile-grimace at once pert and smug, but not as often or as vigorously.) Among the ensemble throngs, Jodie Foster provides astringent star presence as a tough-skinned, soft-centered mother left doubly bereft by WW I, while Love Me If You Dare‘s Marion Cotillard coolly pockets the movie as Tina Lombardi, “the Officer Killer,” an avenging-angel whore with style enough to enlist an ornate chandelier in gruesomely dispensing with a bigwig’s fat chassis. Cotillard is a black widow straight out of a Guy Maddin fever dream—and indeed, if you’re seeking thwarted romance and identity ambiguity against the smoking, slimy wreckage of the Great War, you need look no further than Maddin’s Archangel.