A Very Long Engagement (15)

What the crème brûlée kid did next
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The Independent Culture

Passions ran high over Jean-Pierre Jeunet's last film Amélie. For some, it was as quintessentially, deliciously French as a big juicy slice of tarte Tatin. For others, myself included, it was as bogus as a 3-D postcard of sunset over Montmartre. Although some French critics accused the film of promoting reactionary nationalism, more realistically its offence was to be twee and facetious, with its gamine heroine, an autistic Olive Oyl, forever making doe eyes at us over her blessed crème brûlée.

Passions ran high over Jean-Pierre Jeunet's last film Amélie. For some, it was as quintessentially, deliciously French as a big juicy slice of tarte Tatin. For others, myself included, it was as bogus as a 3-D postcard of sunset over Montmartre. Although some French critics accused the film of promoting reactionary nationalism, more realistically its offence was to be twee and facetious, with its gamine heroine, an autistic Olive Oyl, forever making doe eyes at us over her blessed crème brûlée.

But even as a diehard Améliephobe, I have to admit that Jeunet's follow-up, A Very Long Engagement, is quite something. Although it's close to Amélie in some respects, again starring the director's winsome muse Audrey Tautou, it's a very different film, and in its bizarrely incontinent fashion, an arresting achievement.

Adapted from Sébastien Japrisot's novel, A Very Long Engagement is Jeunet's vision of war, and those scenes that imagine the hell of the Somme trenches are about as vividly brutal as screen representations of the Great War ever have been. The story begins in 1917 with the court martial of five French soldiers - including a gauche young Breton, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) - accused of mutilating themselves in order to be invalided home. The execution method is particularly callous: transferred to a trench codenamed Bingo Crépuscule, the five prisoners are sent over the top into no-man's land, to languish until such time as the Germans decide to open fire.

Three years later, however, Manech's sweetheart Mathilde (Tautou) still believes he is alive and sets out to find him, embarking on a crazy-paving trail of scattered clues and connections. Rambling as it is, sometimes to the limits of comprehensibility, the narrative proves very revealing about public and private history as it unearths the stories of Manech's fellow prisoners. Aided by a hired detective (the genially ferret-like Ticky Holgado), Mathilde delves into the events linking a vengeful Corsican prostitute, an itinerant quartermaster, a Parisian barman with a prosthetic wooden hand, and - in an affecting parenthesis - a marital triangle involving a soldier's wife, played improbably but with creditably unstarry pragmatism (and an impressive French accent) by Jodie Foster.

The film begins in businesslike fashion, letting us know we're going to be spun a yarn: from the moment the sober, detached female voice-over kicks in, we feel pulled authoritatively into a narrative as murky and maze-like as the trenches probed by Bruno Delbonnel's camera.

Given that the film is part-financed by Warner Bros, Jeunet and co-writer Guillaume Laurent stick to their guns in keeping the film as far as possible from Hollywood narrative patterns. Skipping between Mathilde's quest and the Somme three years earlier, and taking in multiple flashbacks and digressions, the film has a considerably more complex structure than you'd expect of a €45m blockbuster.

New characters endlessly pop their heads out of the trenches only to disappear promptly into the mud of history. The investigative conceit is also very literary (though in the execution, hardly uncinematic), depending on stories reported secondhand, or gleaned from letters, newspaper reports and long-lost documents. In terms of narrative trickery, Engagement is no less risk-taking, say, than Wong Kar-Wai's current time-bender 2046.

Spectacular as the film is, it never euphemises or aestheticises war; only one scene, involving an exploding Zeppelin, has a conventional wham-bam grandeur. Jeunet's Somme is an oppressively cloacal world, at once realistic and expressionistic: its rain-steeped, rank greyness is heightened with such Gothic touches as a dead horse draped from a tree like a deflated balloon. The battle scenes are more aptly described as slaughter scenes, with waves of men sent to be mown down by an unseen enemy.

By contrast, it's in Mathilde's story that what you might call the crème brûlée seeps in. The young lovers' back story, set on a scenically rugged coastline, is soused in the syrupy glow of a remembered idyll, in a prettified Brittany where Mathilde lives with a doting uncle and aunt and farting dog, and wiles away her dreamy moments playing her tuba on the rocks. Yet to some degree, Jeunet persuades us to accept all this as a different register in his sprawling symphony: sugared pastoral to offset the unrelenting harshness of the war sequences.

The film is bolstered hugely by a strong pulse of historical and archeological fascination, not least in those shots that digitally recreate Paris's lost landmarks, such as the Gare d'Orsay and the old market of Les Halles. The same archeological impulse also informs the way that Jeunet harks back to a national tradition of character acting.

A horde of French cinema's great plug-uglies are here - including Denis Lavant as a defiantly roaring anarchist, looking as if Rodin had sculpted him in a drunken fit - and you keep hearing inflexions that recall French acting styles of the past, little vocal cadences from the cinema of Renoir or Carné.

Even Audrey Tautou is highly watchable, largely because she doesn't have to flirt virginally with the camera all the time. She's still not required to be much more than Bambi in human form, with a polio-induced limp, yet she performs with a reserve and a pensive determination that allow her to carry off some of Mathilde's more whimsical moments.

This is a wildly undisciplined film, shifting tone bewilderingly and jumping genres from historical realism to Disneyish romance to marital melodrama to cloak-and-dagger penny-dreadful mystery, before winding down to an unexpectedly muted ending that it's hard not to find bathetic. But in all its excess, A Very Long Engagement is never boring. And it arguably sets a new benchmark, both for what CGI illusionism can do for historical re-creation, and in suggesting ways that international blockbuster values might infuse some reviving energies into the traditions of national cinema. At its most bombastic, the film suggests a nightmare vision of what such an encounter might bring, but you have to admire Jeunet for his ambition, seriousness and out-and-out fervour.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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