Enjoying A Very Long Engagement essentially depends on how much one can stand visionary carnival barker Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s brand of impatiently imaginative, aggressively artificial filmmaking. An inventive artiste whose post-apocalyptic debut Delicatessen established a surrealistic fabulosity that’s become the director’s trademark, Jeunet has never fully lived up to the awe-inspiring promise of that initial triumph—The City of Lost Children was gorgeous but emotionally barren; Alien Resurrection turned out to be a muddled, if somewhat intriguing, failure; and Amélie, though occasionally charming and sumptuous, exhibited a belligerent storybook cuteness. His latest, a WWI romance (based on Sébastien Japrisot’s novel) about a woman who doggedly (and irrationally) searches for her missing fiancé in post-war 1920, is a well-intentioned disappointment, an example of squandered potential beset by an off-putting exaltation of hollow, synthetic preciousness. Yet what’s primarily dispiriting about the film is its dubious distinction in the Jeunet canon. For if nothing else, A Very Long Engagement is the director’s first redundant creation.
In 1917, five French soldiers are sent into no man’s land between the French and German fronts as a death sentence for attempting to escape military service, and the film’s opening image—a replication of Kubrick’s through-the-trenches tracking shot from Paths of Glory—immediately paints a hellish portrait of war. One of these men, the gentle teenager Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), has a sweetheart named Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) at home, and three years later in the 1920 Parisian countryside, the polio-afflicted Mathilde still desperately holds out hope that her lover will return. A stubborn, love-sick woman with an active imagination, Mathilde is a slightly more somber version of Amélie, and Jeunet mistakenly pushes this resemblance to the breaking point, dramatizing dreams and flashbacks, using narration to reveal peripheral characters’ idiosyncratic quirks, regularly shooting the doe-eyed Tautou in close-up, and envisioning a fairy-tale Paris replete with a mythic Eiffel Tower, explosive Zeppelin and cartoonish characters like a bartender with a walnut-cracking wooden hand. Whereas this stylization suited the director’s previous lighthearted fable, when grafted onto a mournful romance such as A Very Long Engagement, the effect is one of suffocation. Affecting a pose of romantic longing but too busy being clever to convey the actual passion and pain of love, Jeunet’s meticulously composed film becomes airless and unemotional, and the only true feeling that emanates from the screen is the director’s own prideful infatuation with CGI-aided visual exquisiteness.
Alternating between sepia-toned loveliness (in Paris and the country) and gray oppressiveness (in war), Jeunet’s cinematographic skills are unquestionably remarkable, and certain moments—an uncomfortable tryst between a wife (Jodie Foster, speaking competent French) and her husband’s best friend, and Mathilde and Manech’s seductive foreplay, illuminated only by matches—achieve a delicate poignancy courtesy of the director’s graceful use of light and shadows. Unfortunately, the film’s union of playful whimsy and humorless gravity never holds. Tautou’s Mathilde is a dreary, petulant cipher, and her circuitous investigation (which leads to all sorts of Rashomon-style stories about Manech’s fate) is so crowded with extraneous characters and plot twists that the film’s central focus—Mathilde’s persistent longing—merely functions as the catalyst for Jeunet’s familiar, extravagant diversions. Juxtaposed against this hustle and bustle, the director’s uninspired depiction of the cruel, random madness of war is flippant and insincere, as though seemingly tacked on in an attempt to give the film more award-season weight. Touting love’s resilience in the face of catastrophic combat, A Very Long Engagement leaves the enduring impression that Jeunet has run out of new ideas.