Mathilde in Thunderland

The young French actress Audrey Tautou has the dimpled cheeks, mobile mouth and astonished saucer eyes of a silent-movie love interest. That ever since Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 hit comedy Amélie just about every man I know has had the hots for Tautou testifies to the continuing allure of the child-woman in the male erotic imagination. Yet there's a steely, almost irascible focus about Tautou that came out in her memorable, if less than fully formed, turn as a determined Turkish—she looks as though she could kill you on behalf of a good cause—immigrant in Stephen Frears' 2002 Dirty Pretty Things. There one glimpsed the mature and versatile actress she may one day become, when the bloom is off that creamy skin and her ripe cupid lips have thinned into middle age.

That potential is there, too, in Jeunet's ambitious new World War I–era movie A Very Long Engagement, in which Tautou plays Mathilde, a polio-afflicted woman searching for her childhood sweetheart Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), a naive young lighthouse keeper who, it seems, has perished ingloriously in the trenches of the Somme. Manech was one of five soldiers court-martialed, rightly or wrongly, for self-mutilation with a view to being invalided out on the eve of what everyone expected to be a bloodbath. On the orders of their brutal commander (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), the five are thrown out of the trench, whimsically titled Bingo Crépuscule, onto the battlefield to be picked off by German snipers. The movie, which is capably adapted by Jeunet and screenwriter Guillaume Laurant from a novel by Sébastien Japrisot, casts their fate, and Mathilde's efforts to find her lover, as a detective story with overtones of Alice in Wonderland. On one level or another every film Jeunet has made, from Delicatessen through The City of Lost Children to Amélie (to say nothing of Alien: Resurrection) has been some kind of bizarro fable. And Alice, with its bursts of arbitrary power and its endless rounds of malicious adversity, makes an inspired frame for one of the most mad-hatterishly pointless and out-of-control wars in human history.

It goes without saying that A Very Long Engagement is, like all Jeunet's films, a triumph of production design, storyboarded down to the last curlicue, full of beguiling spiral shapes and color-coded to contrast the dark browns of trench life with the golden light of Mathilde's monomaniacal resolve. Like Alice's, her journey is peopled with kooks of varying degrees of lovability, among them Mathilde's jolly aunt, obsessed with her farting dog; a private investigator whom Mathilde hires to find Manech and who bears a manic resemblance to the White Rabbit; a soldier's bereaved wife played, for no clear reason, by Jodie Foster. Tautou's Mathilde, with her hefty limp, her reflexive kindness and her fierce unwillingness to accept that Manech is dead, is an intriguingly wry and strong-minded presence who also brings a warm humanity and coherence that is otherwise absent from what is, at almost two and a half self-indulgent hours, a very long engagement indeed.

Celebrated for its dazzling formal and visual flair, Delicatessen (which Jeunet co-directed with Mark Caro), was nonetheless held by some critics, myself among them, to be cold, uninvolving and trivial. It's possible to chart Jeunet's subsequent films as an effort to rise to the occasion of those objections—Amélie was a giddy love story, and A Very Long Engagement seeks to probe nothing less than the impact of war on the individual psyche. To my mind, Jeunet's undeniable talent for design outstrips his grasp of narrative or human significance. Jeunet is a big kid, smart and playful but uneasy around adult emotions, which in his new movie are reduced to glib polarities of light versus dark, love versus vengeance. As Mathilde doggedly pursues her rambling search to its conclusion, A Very Long Engagement shuttles between schoolboy humor, calculated savagery and, at the end, a rank sentimentalism in which love all too easily conquers all. Not on the Somme, it didn't.

A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT WAS directed by JEAN-PIERRE JEUNET; Written by JEUNET and GUILLAUME LAURANT, adapted from the novel by SÉBASTIEN JAPRISOT; Produced by BILL GERBER; and stars AUDREY TATOU and GASPARD ULLIEL. Now playing countywide.

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