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A Very Long Engagement

Whimsy and War

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Audrey Tautou

Audrey Tautou looks positively dreamy in Jean-Pierre Jeunot's "A Very Long Engagement."

Take the title of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's epic World War romance at face value: two hours and thirteen minutes is a very, very long time. A French production, partially funded by Hollywood, Jeunet clearly has a large budget at his disposal, and he mixes genres with abandon. The film is both a whimsical love story featuring, brown-eyed "Amelié" star Audrey Tautou at her most adorable, and a nitty-gritty depiction of the horrors of trench warfare. It is a very bad mix.
Mathilde (Tautou) is a beautiful cripple living in a fairy tale house on the French seaside with her quirky aunt and uncle, a returning flock of white geese, countless kitty cats, and a furry dog called Chickpea. In this idyllic landscape, the aunt is prone to say such fanciful lines as "Doggie farts gladden my heart." Before the end of the war, Mathilde receives word that her fiancé Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) is one of five wounded soldiers who have been court-martialed and pushed out in no man's land between the French and German armies: an almost certain death. Mathilde, of course, does not believe. If he were dead, she would know.
Thus begins one woman's extraordinary quest to discover the truth. In her very long journey, Mathilde receives numerous accounts of Manech's last days. She meets American icon Jodie Foster in the guise of a Polish woman who engages in not one but two naked sex scenes with a French soldier in her uncredited cameo appearance. She befriends the vengeful whore Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard), who kills men while wearing wildly seductive outfits. She also meets all sorts of wounded soldiers who relive their harrowing experiences in an awful trench with the improbably comical name of Bingo Crepuscule. There are numerous war scenes: almost lovingly filmed explosions on the battlefield, replete with bloody guts and lingering dust settling slowly before the camera. The plot seems unduly complicated with a large cast of lovable, eccentric characters. The screenplay, an adaptation of Sebastien Japrisot's novel, would have benefited from some serious streamlining.
There is zero suspense driving "A Very Long Engagement." Our wistful heroine maintains faith when there is none, and so what are the chances, honestly, that her quest will produce a dead fiancé? The happy ending is foretold from the beginning. (Remember, it takes an exceedingly long two hours and thirteen minutes to get there.) Jean Pierre-Jeneut struck cinematic gold using the charms of waiflike Tautou in the saccharine crowd pleaser "Amelié." His trademark stylized whimsy is acceptable in a romantic comedy, but borderlines on offensive in a story about war. The burden is too heavy for one adorable actress.
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