- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

While many movies have been longer by the clock than “A Very Long Engagement,” it’s not often that one feels as long as this sprawling fable of tenacious devotion and scattered identities set against a backdrop of World War I.

“Engagement,” based on the late Sebastien Japrisot’s best-selling novel, reunites French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet with actress Audrey Tatou and many other collaborators from “Amelie” (2001), a French import that became a surprise hit in U.S. theaters.

Miss Tatou plays an orphaned, slightly crippled and sometimes tuba-playing ingenue called Mathilde, who feels certain that her childhood sweetheart Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) has survived a dire fate on the Sommes front in 1917.

Three years later she initiates a private investigation, hiring a sleuth called Peerless Pire (Ticky Holgado), who aids in unraveling the mysteries planted in the prologue, which depicts the dilemma facing Manech and four other soldiers. Court-martialed for self-inflicted injuries, they are sent to a miserable outpost on the front where enemy bombardment is expected to be an efficient executioner.

Mathilde’s mission involves so many deceptions, detours, dead ends, fatalities and flashbacks that sheer narrative profligacy seems to overwhelm historical evocation on one hand and undying love on the other. Mr. Jeunet now commands a crew that can fill a screen with elaborate and atmospherically charged imagery. His simulation of the front, for example, extended about 200 yards. All the industrious digging and set-dressing seem to cry out for repeated offensives rather than only a handful.

There is an unexpected American cast member along the way: Jodie Foster. Unbilled but erotically active while in the thick of a subplot, she proves such an effective ringer that it might have been entertaining to see surprise guest stars proliferate within the gallery of rogues, true hearts and clowns Mr. Jeunet parades across the screen.

So much wearisome virtuosity is on display in “Engagement” that Mr. Jeunet tramples anything resembling an intimate and abiding sentimental thread. Mathilde and Manech always seem more risible than endearing, especially when recalled as idyllic youngsters.

Miss Tatou’s charm seems to congeal before Mathilde can make a persuasive inspirational case for intuition and indomitable love. Her triumph isn’t even much of a triumph, since it involves a certain blithe disregard of the hundreds of thousands of sweethearts who could never be reconciled with slain lovers. It’s as if they hadn’t wished hard enough for survival against all odds.

In fact, one must struggle to think of Mathilde and Manech as a flesh-and-blood match. The movie anticipates a reunion better suited to kindergarten than sadder-but-wiser adulthood.

**

TITLE: “A Very Long Engagement”

RATING: R (Occasional graphic violence, usually depictions of World War I trench warfare and squalor; occasional profanity and sexual candor, including simulated intercourse).

CREDITS: Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Screenplay by Mr. Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant, based on the novel by Sebastien Japrisot. Cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel. Set design by Aline Bonetto. Costume design by Madeline Fontaine. Music by Angelo Badalamenti. In French with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 133 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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