Much-anticipated reteaming of helmer Jean-Pierre Jeunet with Audrey Tautou, as a young woman who refuses to believe her fiance is dead, is a magnificently crafted bittersweet tale. More wrenching and less fanciful than "Amelie" yet still marbled with humor, ambitious venture should engage discerning audiences.

Love and unflagging resolve battle the horrors and secrets of war in “A Very Long Engagement.” Much-anticipated reteaming of helmer Jean-Pierre Jeunet with “Amelie” star Audrey Tautou, as a young woman who refuses to believe her fiance is dead, is a magnificently crafted bittersweet tale. More wrenching and less fanciful than “Amelie” yet still marbled with humor, WWI-era weepie is so populated with characters and incidents some viewers may be overwhelmed. Told with a blend of visual mastery and emotional intimacy, ambitious venture sustains a special melding of romance and pragmatism that should engage discerning audiences. Oct. 27 release in France debuts stateside Nov. 26.

Plenty of local ink — much of it hostile — has been spilled debating the conditions under which Warner Bros. helped produce the E46 million ($57 million) pic. But financing is — or should be — beside the point, for the result is French to the tips of its widescreen celluloid toes. There have been no visible concessions to Hollywood-style thinking, even though Warner had once envisioned an English-lingo screen adaptation of Sebastien Japrisot’s novel.

Wallowing in cultural specificity — from the unspeakably miserable trenches of WWI to the bustling of post-war Paris — venture allows French special-effects houses to prove their ever more astonishing dexterity with digital matte work and image manipulation. Token Yank Jodie Foster, playing a Frenchwoman of Polish descent, is a splendid addition to a perfectly cast ensemble overflowing with Jeunet regulars and a host of top Gallic character thesps.

Although in parts of Asia, any movie in which Tautou appears is billed opportunistically as “Amelie 2,” “Amelie 3,” etc. (“Engagement” is at least her 15th screen role, six of them prior to “Amelie”), this is Jeunet’s first film since then.

Viewers are immediately thrust into the wretched conditions in a sodden rain-pelted trench. On this day in January, 1917, a woman’s voiceover (Florence Thomassin) explains, five French soldiers are being led to their doom.

Court-martialed and sentenced to death as an example to their long-suffering comrades, Bastoche (Jerome Kircher), Six Sous (Denis Lavant), Ange Bassignano (Dominique Bettenfeld), Benoit Notre-Dame (Clovis Cornillac) and Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) stand convicted of deliberately mutilating themselves in order to escape duty.

In Jeunet’s patented shorthand — exaggerated visuals, rapid editing, dense narration — we learn what each man was like before his military experiences drove him to extreme measures.

Barely 20, Manech is the sweet son of a lighthouse keeper, determined to marry Mathilde (Tautou), who lives with her loving Aunt Benedicte (Chantal Neuwirth) and Uncle Sylvain (Dominique Pinon). Polio left Mathilde with a limp, but her late parents provided for her via an inheritance administered by kindly Pierre-Marie Rouvieres (Andre Dussollier).

The five bad apples are dispatched to the frontline encampment nonsensically named Bingo Crepuscule. There the commanding officer (Tcheky Karyo) is expected to send them into the no-man’s land dividing the French combat position from the Germans. The order is carried out, after which official reports say all five men died under enemy fire.

But Mathilde believes she’d know if Manech were dead. Body of pic consists of Mathilde’s detective work in the years just after the war. She hires private investigator Germain Pire (the late Ticky Holgado in his penultimate role) and parallels his efforts.

Meanwhile, a femme fatale (Marion Cotillard) is doing bodily harm to a hand-picked roster of men who served and survived.

Suspenseful until its final frames, pic is centered on perseverance, legwork and intelligent deduction.Mathilde’s quest hinges on letters and postcards, oral histories and telegrams, news items and overheard conversations. A running gag in which the bicycle-riding postman (Jean-Paul Rouve) is Mathilde’s conduit to both possible progress and probable heartache, is a sterling example of the basic yet rich ingredients of much simpler times.

While it’s easy to see why Jeunet was attracted to the material — he read the novel in 1992 after co-helming debut feature “Delicatessen” but despaired of getting the rights Warner already held — and why he cast Tautou as Mathilde, pic is more melancholy and substantially harsher than “Amelie.” Current effort will do fine if it attracts only a fraction of that pic’s international haul.

Pic registers primarily as a love story with haunting digressions into misfortune, but in its portrait of the trenches and the consequences of soul-searing combat, result is as antiwar as Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory.”

Intricate script rife with characters means Jeunet must keep lots of balls in the air. For some viewers, male characters and their respective significant others may be hard to keep straight, if only because otherwise distinctive actors tend to look similar in period garb and prominent moustaches.

There is no mistaking Tautou’s perf for anything but essential as intricate tale bounces back and forth in time.

Production design is splendid, with an elaborate shot of the capital’s long-gone Les Halles market and another of the streets near the Opera breathtaking in their reconstitution. The seemingly inevitable collision between a gas-filled blimp and a deadly obstacle provides a nail-biting countdown.

Even when not incorporating visually flawless set-pieces, Jeunet makes the most of the contrast between quiet countryside and bustling metropolis. The brief scene in which farmer Benoit is conscripted from the middle of his near-Elysian fields is a gorgeous and searing depiction of how little the senseless slaughter of war has to do with the core activities of life.

Pic’s judicious color scheme privileges burnished ochre and the palette of old hand-tinted postcards. D.P. Bruno Delbonnel says he drew inspiration from Gordon Willis’ lensing of “The Godfather.”

Never intrusive or overly emphatic, Angelo Badalamenti’s score lets the action speak for itself.

From sets to costumes to sound design, prodigious technical polish is the rule.

A Very Long Engagement

France

Production

A Warner Bros. (in France)/Warner Independent (in U.S.) release of a Warner Bros. Pictures presentation of a 2003 Prods. production in association with Warner Bros. France, Tapioca Films, TF1 Film Production. Produced by Francis Boespflug. Executive producer, Jean-Lou Monthieux. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Screenplay, Jeunet, Guillaume Laurant, based on the novel by Sebastien Japrisot;

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Bruno Delbonnel; editor, Herve Schneid; music, Angelo Badalamenti; production designer, Aline Bonetto; costume designer, Madeleine Fontaine; sound recordist (Dolby), Jean Umansky; sound designer, Laurent Kossayan; sound editor, Gerard Hardy; sound mixer, Vincent Arnardi; digital effects, Alain Carsoux-Duboi; mechanical special effects, "Les Versaillais": Yves Domenjoud, Olivier Gleyze, Jean-Baptiste Bonetto; assistant directors, Pascal Roy,Thierry Mauvoisin, Arnaud Esterez; casting, Pierre Jacques Benichou. Reviewed at UGC Normandie, Paris, Sept 24, 2004. Running time: 134 MIN.

With

Mathilde - Audrey Tautou Manech - Gaspard Ulliel Esperanza - Jean-Pierre Becker Ange Bassignano - Dominique Bettenfeld Benoit Notre Dame - Clovis Cornillac Tina Lombardi - Marion Cotillard Benjamin Gordes - Jean-Pierre Daroussin Elodie Gordes - Jodie Foster Lavrouye - Jean-Claude Dreyfus Celestin Poux - Albert Dupontel Pierre-Marie Rouvieres - Andre Dussollier Germain Pire - Ticky Holgado Favourier - Tcheky Karyo Bastoche - Jerome Kircher Six Sous - Denis Lavant Thouvenel - Francois Levantal Benedicte - Chantal Neuwirth Sylvain - Dominique Pinon Postman - Jean-Paul Rouve
With: Julie Depardieu, Michel Vuillermoz, Bouli Lanners, Rufus, Michel Chalmeau, Maud Rayer, Philippe Duquesne. Narrator: Florence Thomassin
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