Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the man behind early-90s art-house hits Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995), has along the years won plaudits and a large audience for his cheeky, surreal creations, infamous for their set designs, innovative editing and relentless attention to detail.
Hollywood took heed and signed him up him to direct Alien Resurrection (1997), which rescued the series after the failure of the previous instalment of the series, Alien 3. It was a case of perfect director casting, as Jeunet’s own brand of film-making matched the Alien series avant-sci-fi ethos.
But it was with the astounding global success of Amelie that he cemented his reputation and acquired heavyweight artistic cachet. The film also made an overnight star of Audrey Tautou, who’s been cultivating the kooky public persona that the media seems to adore in European actresses. It was inevitable that Hollywood would come calling again, to keep up with the brain-drain tradition in Tinseltown that sees the cigar-munching producers recruiting in Europe when their home turf gets a bit sterile –which it definitely seems to be at the moment.
The result of the new Jeunet-goes-to-Hollywood adventure is the sprawling WWI romantic saga A Very Long Engagement, which sees Jeunet reunited with Tautou in an attempt to repeat the magic that made Amelie such a surprise crossover success.
Perhaps bearing in mind that America loves spectacle and war scenes, Jeunet decided that for A Very Long Engagement, more should definitely mean more. The film is long, features multiple characters, and delivers war sequences designed to give the viewer almost an IMAX-style type of experience. The storyline is simple, though. Mathilda (Tautou) refuses to believe that her childhood sweetheart Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) is dead after being sentenced to death for treason. She sets about joining the pieces of a chaotic war jigsaw in search of the truth. During her quest, she comes across an assorted collection of characters. At some point we even think we see Jodie Foster speaking French on the screen and then realise that yes, it really is Foster.
There are problems with all this excess, though. First, the visuals: the film is so stylised and graphically rich that you sometimes have the impression that the post-production crew wanted to use every digital trick available to them. Second, the story line gets lost under the digital rubble. It’s supposed to be a romantic exaltation of the indestructibility of love, but it fails to engage us with that idea. The love between Mathilde and Manech doesn’t feel strong enough. That could be partly because Tautou is not ready to carry an epic of such magnitude – in fact, she doesn’t seem very engaging and likeable, but more like a capricious brat.
Having said that, the film impresses in several set-piece sequences, and for those who measure the quality of a movie on its power to provoke physical reactions, this is potentially a tear-jerking treat. Another way to enjoy this film is to concentrate on the mini-sequences which often follow a description of a memory by the voiceover narrating the story. The explosion of a zeppelin in an improvised hospital, the shots of Paris and the sequence where Tina Lombardi (Marion Cottilard) takes revenge on commandant Lavroye (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) are some of the stand-out moments.
Alternately moving and chaotic, A Very Long Engagement is an excessively busy movie that never quite finds enough room to breathe – but watching Jeunet throw his imaginative weight around on the big screen is an enjoyable experience all the same.