Fri, Feb 18, 2005 - Page 17 News List

An existential movie serves up a mystery

By Manohla Dargis  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

If you like battleground carnage delivered with aesthetic brio, the kind that ensures that when a soldier explodes into confetti his flesh will dapple a trenchmate as decoratively as pink rosettes on a cake, the new French film A Very Long Engagement will serve you nicely. Set during World War I and directed by the cult favorite Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the film follows the adventures of a young woman, Mathilde, played by Audrey Tautou, who holds fast to the hope that her fiance will return home. Even when death seems to do them part, the cord of her love remains unbroken.

Like the book on which it's based -- by the crime novelist and screenwriter Jean-Baptiste Rossi -- who wrote under the name Sebastien Japrisot, A Very Long Engagement opens with five French soldiers snaking through muddy trenches. It's January 1917, three years into the Great War, and the men are marching toward death, having been court-martialed for self-mutilation. Among the five is Mathilde's young fiance, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), a gentle creature called Cornflower, who had been reduced to a catatonic state after an explosion covered him in another man's blood and viscera. It's a scene that Japrisot captures quickly and without embellishment: "He'd spat out the horror and shrieked his head off." Soon after he stops screaming, Manech is tossed onto the battlefield and left for dead.

Several years later, after the trenches of Europe have been turned into manicured graveyards, Mathilde learns that Manech may still be alive.

Springing into action, somewhat cumbersomely since polio has left her with one lame leg, she begins searching for her fiance, poring through letters and over clues, and tracking down anyone who can explain what happened and why. With the pluck of Nancy Drew and the cunning of Hercule Poirot, she digs into the histories of the other condemned men, inquiries that take her from her bucolic oceanside home all the way to bustling Paris. Slowly, slowly, very slowly, Mathilde peels away the layers of memory and misdirection provided by the four men's friends and lovers, eventually uncovering some kind of truth.

Film Notes

Directed by: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Starring:Audrey Tautou (Mathilde Gaspard Ulliel), Manech Jean-Pierre Becker (Lieutenant Esperanza Dominique), Bettenfeld (Ange Bassignano), Clovis Cornillac (Benoit Notre-Dame)

Running time: 134 minutes

Taiwan Release: today

Best known for Amelie, a modern fairy tale also starring Tautou, Jeunet is in the possession of a distinctive visual style developed during his longtime collaboration with his former filmmaking partner, Marc Caro. In films like Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, both released in the 1990s, the two men fashioned meticulous dark worlds that were part Rube Goldberg, part FAO Schwarz, and generally enjoyable for about 15 minutes. Watching gears and wheels whir inside a clock, no matter how precisely calibrated the mechanism, quickly loses its appeal, and the same is true of these films. The collaborators parted ways when Jeunet went solo to direct the fourth and most miserable installment of the Alien franchise, a debacle that was soon forgotten with the international success of Amelie.

With A Very Long Engagement, Jeunet has again proved himself an admirable watchmaker. Armed with an enormous bag of special-effects tricks, he recreates a bygone era with digital wizardry, manic energy, a fastidious attention to detail and only the faintest of heartbeats. Unlike children who bring even the most chewed-up teddy bear to life, Jeunet shows no interest in animating the characters in his dollhouse world, and even Mathilde and her tears remain fundamentally decorative, as arid as the computer-assisted cinematography.

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