A Very Long Engagement unfolds amid the mechanized carnage of World War I. Yet everything in it is personal. That's why it's a masterpiece. The director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, compels a viewer to feel each concussive jolt of cannon fire as a transgressive act - and to cheer whenever a conscripted man revolts against the inhuman condition. But Jeunet's most astonishing achievement is his celebration of hope transcending carnage.
The movie hinges on the fate of five French soldiers court-martialed for wounding themselves in order to escape service. (Not all the convictions are warranted.) The army doesn't neatly execute them. It tosses them into no man's land between French and German trenches, on the theory that they'll fall to the horrendous crossfire. One of them, a once-brave yet traumatized youth, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), has the magnificent luck to be the true love of a heroically devoted Brittany woman, Mathilde (Audrey Tautou). A polio survivor (Manech befriended her when he was 10 and she was 9 - and other kids mocked her gimpy walk), she refuses to accept Manech's death as fact. She hires a detective (Ticky Holgado) to help search for him.
In a single enthralling narrative, Mathilde and Manech encompass the makings of a tearjerker, a war movie, a private eye film, a cliffhanger and a melodrama about arbitrary military justice. (The movie in part is an inspired salute to French cinema, from silent fantasies, serials and documentaries up to the New Wave.) But you never ask yourself, "What is this?" This film is cinematic in the highest sense. Courtship rituals, harrowing exposes, arcane clues and a sprinkling of baroque gimmicks come together with an emotional completeness that includes surprising fits of humor. Ultimately, it is moving beyond words. With Mathilde at the center, a handful of people make sense of their past and reconstitute their fate by every scrap of data they can find. The movie is about longing and memory - about longing as the fuel for memory. So even when it sojourns in the gore and muck of a Somme battlefield, it's the most robust romantic movie of the year, perhaps even of this young millennium.
Jeunet, who with Guillaume Laurant adapted Sebastien Japrisot's novel, has been accused of pursuing cleverness for its own sake - and with his huge hit Amelie (2001) the charge was justified. But in A Very Long Engagement Jeunet's fresh techniques illuminate the material and expand it. With his virtuoso cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, Jeunet drapes the movie in a haunting spectrum of browns - ruddy brown, yellow-brown, greenish brown - so that splashes of a salmon sunset seen from a lighthouse or a stream of dirty blue uniforms register piercingly or balefully. And Jeunet keeps the camera in unexpected motion, so that you never grow relaxed at the sight of a soldier's corpse or a lover's body.
With each eye-popping piece of storytelling invention, Jeunet makes gloriously concrete the persistence of human creativity even during eras when mankind literally seems hellbent. When Mathilde encounters a bartender with a wooden hand, the contraption is intricately toylike and marvelously handmade. Throughout the movie, Jeunet brilliantly balances light and dark - including the contrast between love that heals and love that kills. Mathilde has a violent counterpart, a prostitute named Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard), who exacts rough justice for her pimp, Ange Bassignano (Dominique Bettenfeld), with the fierceness of an avenging angel. The way she dispatches one of Ange's murderers with a pistol-pulley rig is appallingly sly and oddly stirring, in the manner of a zingy graphic-novel climax.
The trunk of the story and its multiple branches form patterns of shade and sunshine that spread with organic fullness. This film is a triumph of emotion and idea made palpable and immediate. The theme of competing wartime loyalties is made personal when Jodie Foster plays a woman who makes love to her husband's best friend - at her husband's request. He can't have children of his own, though he's already the stepfather of five; with a sixth child he'll be sent home from the front. In the compact, heart-rending role of a woman who finds a passion she didn't seek, Foster hasn't been this sensual or affecting since Taxi Driver.
But the movie belongs to Tautou and to Ulliel as the young lovers. Maybe not since Children of Paradise has there been a piece of pop love poetry as affecting as the film's depiction of Manech falling asleep with his hand on Mathilde's breast, and recalling it as a sense-memory, once the bullet goes through his hand. "Every time his wound throbs," says the narrator, "Manech feels Mathilde's heartbeat in his palm, and each beat brings her closer to him." The romance of these two is filled with symbols - an albatross flying against the wind, the letters MMM (for Mathilde Marrying Manech) - that are all the more poignant for being so workaday and plainspoken, and also for doubling as clues to Manech's life or death.
If in Amelie Tautou evoked Audrey Hepburn (too self-consciously), here she has the gamine toughness of Fellini's muse, Giulietta Masina. She brings her character briskness and intelligence as well as charm. Devoid of self-pity, she even exploits her limp to gain sympathy and entree to secret places. She mocks the miracles at Lourdes, but she engages in magical thinking herself - for example, she tells herself that if the family dog enters her room before dinner, Manech will be alive. In that theme, and in its individuality, A Very Long Engagement resembles the best humanist film of last year, In America. It's so good from the beginning that a viewer may indulge in magical thinking, too: "If I don't shift in my seat, it will stay beautiful and brilliant." No magical thinking is required, though. This film is pure wizardry without it.
A Very Long Engagement
Starring Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Marion Cotillard, Jodie Foster
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Released by Warner Independent
Time 134 minutes
Sun Score ****