War, wizardry and love

Audrey Tautou searches for a lost love amid the chaos of post-World War I Europe in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's ingenious "A Very Long Engagement," the holiday season's best movie so far.

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War, wizardry and love

Everything important about “A Very Long Engagement” — its manufactured storybook conjuring, its sudden, unexpected sweeps of scope and emotion — can be seen in the fields. Time and again this World War I drama returns to the French countryside where the worst battles of that war were fought. When officials come to draft a farmer enjoying an idyllic ride with his wife, a wind bends the long grass on either side of them as if nature itself were bowing down at the prospect of manmade catastrophe. We see that catastrophe in the battle scenes — vast, desolate mudscapes that suck the life out of the soldiers with every step. The land is so bleak that its purpose seems to be to snuff out whatever life ventures into it. It’s as if the soldiers picking each other off are simply doing the bidding of the fates.

So it seems like poetic license when several characters return to the battlefield a few years after the end of the war to find it lush and green and sunny. There’s something touching — also naive, perhaps, and calculated — in the stroke of restoring the green to the devastated earth. It’s a small visual metaphor for the movie itself, which is about a young woman who is determined not to let the war denude her life.

“A Very Long Engagement” arrives heralded by the pomp usually reserved for holiday prestige adaptations of praised novels, in this case, one by the French writer Sébastien Japrisot. The delightful surprise is how fleet the movie is, how light on its feet. This war tale/mystery/love story is an ingenious example of technological wizardry redeemed by a magician’s instinct. At its best, the movie’s calculation becomes dark enchantment.

The darkness was gone in director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s previous film, the huge international hit “Amélie.” The genuine magic that had marked his “City of Lost Children” (directed with Marc Caro) gave way to icky sweetness. In “A Very Long Engagement,” Jeunet has achieved the balance between the darkness of his first films and the optimism he faked in “Amélie.”

There’s a moment in François Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player” where a gangster tells a whopper and takes an oath that his mother should drop dead if he’s lying. Whereupon Truffaut cuts to a shot of an old lady keeling over. At times it feels as if Jeunet has built his whole style of making movies on that one throwaway gag. He loves digressions, visual flourishes in the edges of the frame, animation, sight gags, fantasy sequences, all the tricks that the gizmos of modern moviemaking allow him to play. In “Amélie” the rat-a-tat deployment of those tricks drove me to distraction. “A Very Long Engagement” isn’t a distractingly busy picture. There are still times when you want to tell Jeunet to settle down. When Japrisot writes that the heroine of the novel strokes herself to sleep each night while imagining amorous scenarios, it’s a way of collapsing the barriers between us and the past (sometimes we like to pretend that folks in the olden days didn’t think about sex). But when Jeunet shows us one of those scenarios shot as a ticky-tacky silent film, the barriers go back up. It’s a cheap gag.

Happily, Jeunet is far more often an entertainer than a show-off. It may seem inappropriate to talk about a movie magician’s tricks in the context of this subject matter; we may believe a movie about the murderous insanity of World War I should be solemn. But the movie’s tricks lie in the way Jeunet and co-screenwriter Guillaume Laurant have kept faith with the book.

From his early crime novels to his foray into the historical novel with “A Very Long Engagement,” Japrisot wrote puzzles built on the collapse of time and place, on shifting identities. (Japrisot’s own nom de plume is a near-anagram of his real name, Jean-Baptiste Rossi.) The basic story of “A Very Long Engagement” is that of a country girl, Mathilde (played in the movie by Audrey Tautou), who learns that her fiancé was one of five French soldiers condemned to a barbarous death by their own side. Convicted of wounding themselves to escape combat, the five are ordered to the front where, unarmed and with their hands tied behind their back, they will be thrown into the no man’s land between the French and German sides.

Bolstered by nothing more than blind faith that her lover, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), is still alive, Mathilde begins hunting down the soldiers who were in the trenches with him, along with their lovers and relatives. She pursues her sleuthing through a flurry of letters, documents, private interviews, piecing the story together. The plot is insanely complicated (and the movie doesn’t simplify it), but Japrisot gives you the feeling that you’ve latched on to something really neat. Following it is like listening to a tall tale where you periodically lose the thread but stay invested in what’s going on because the company you get to keep is so ingratiating.

A story that proceeds by way of letters and documents can easily become static on-screen. The letters Mathilde receives and the interviews she has are, as you might expect, excuses for flashbacks. But Jeunet also uses them for all sorts of goodies, to allow cartoons or illustrations to bloom within the frame. He’s an inveterate, and quite accomplished, doodler.

Jeunet and Laurant appear to have adapted the book by asking themselves at every turn: What can we do to make this better? Some of the changes are small but have a powerful impact, such as jiggling the time frame so Mathilde encounters one crucial character in person instead of through a posthumous letter. A minor motif in the book, a lover’s message Manech carves into trees and stones, is made prominent here and used in one moment to give the film a sudden flourish of intrigue. The biggest change the filmmakers have made is taking Mathilde out of the wheelchair she’s confined to in the book (it would slow the story down needlessly). She’s still got a limp but it’s not one of those handicaps meant to be emblematic of a character’s soulful fortitude. When the wheelchair appears here, it’s used as an example of Mathilde’s cunning.

Jeunet matches his heroine’s cunning by taking two killings that occur offstage in the book and putting them on-screen with such malevolent panache that you want to applaud. I broke out grinning at the sheer poetic deviousness of these scenes.

On some level everything in the movie, from the re-creation of the war to the beautifully articulated wooden hand sported by a bartender (one of the touches not found in the novel), works like a dazzling mechanical toy. Jeunet doesn’t hide the artificiality of his work. He wants us to be delighted in the way the gears mesh and whir. Jeunet comes as close as any filmmaker can, in the age of CGI, to the charm of the jerry-built. The artifacts in his movies are both reassuringly worn, bearing the recognizable marks of use, and odd enough to have the alien beauty of something from very long ago. When Jeunet is at his best (and it’s safe to say that the very early French fantasy director George Méliès would have enjoyed “The City of Lost Children”) he puts sequences on-screen that, in their intricate visual and narrative design and the woolly precision of their execution, achieve a grave, melting frivolity.

That may be why the battle scenes of “A Very Long Engagement” are so effective. World War I does not have the immediacy or familiarity (or the clarity of purpose) that its successor has in our collective imagination. We know about the mud, the ruthlessness of the new weaponry, and the staggering quantities of dead. We also know the despair from the writings of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen. But it’s an event far enough in the past to feel odd and distant to us. (Maybe it even seems quaint, and if so, shame on us.) Jeunet both exaggerates that distance, with the funny, old-fashioned look of the uniforms and the almost medieval feel of the trenches, and pushes us right into the heart of the horror.

At times, Jeunet may rely too heavily on the effects that, in the wake of “Saving Private Ryan,” have made war the newest frontier of splatter movies. He should have avoided the temptation of a big, showy sequence about the destruction of a field hospital. But Jeunet has given the moments of carnage just the right degree of absurdity and an impeccable timing. At times, the bullets zing to their targets like the punch line of a sick joke. The battle scenes have the texture of something vivid and richly imagined. The cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, though he relies far too much on close-ups, composes brilliantly in the CinemaScope screen and displays an admirably varied palette. The romanticism of Mathilde’s quest to find her beloved Manech doesn’t sugarcoat the war scenes. Her stubbornness plays as a humane reaction to war, the instinct of someone clinging to the very notion of being human that war (justified or not) threatens to destroy.

I’m not ready to join the Audrey Tautou fan club, but she acts here instead of mugging. Mathilde requires a combination of fragility and resolve, and while there are French actors I might have preferred in the role — Vanessa Paradis or perhaps Laurence Côte — the part does tap into the obsessive quality that’s always been spookily apparent in Tautou. And the specifics of the role don’t allow her to flash that impish waif’s grin into the camera. Tautou is more concerned with getting Mathilde’s determination than in being ingratiating. The character grows in stature as the movie goes on.

Jeunet is not so wrapped up in the visuals that he neglects the actors. The secondary characters who are so winning in the book are abundant enough to allow the director to scatter good supporting roles like plums to his amazing cast. Among those people who turn up are Tchéky Karyo as a French officer; Denis Lavant, with his simian mug, as one of the condemned men (he gets the best exit in the movie); Ticky Holgado as the dapper elder detective who faithfully aids Nathalie, Elina Löwensohn as a German woman who lost her brother in the war; Dominique Pinon, whose friendly, gnomic presence has graced all of Jeunet’s films, as Mathilde’s uncle; Chantal Neuwirth, an image of bounteous, welcoming hospitality, as her aunt; and — spectacularly — Marion Cotillard as the tale’s dark avenging Corsican angel. Her appearances are so startling that they very nearly derail the film. Most of these people are more familiar to European audiences than American ones. But you don’t have to have seen an actor before to recognize who has presence, and the roles are miniature demonstrations of star power. “A Very Long Engagement” also features a surprise appearance from an American actress whose name I won’t reveal but who turns in the best performance she’s given in some time.

“A Very Long Engagement” is the wartime romance that the stiff, straining “English Patient” and “Cold Mountain” claimed to be. It helps that, unlike those pictures, “A Very Long Engagement” is based on a good novel instead of a lousy one. It’s also the only one of the three that presents a coherent view of the war against which it’s set, and the only one entirely comfortable with admitting how old-fashioned it is.

It may seem strange to speak of a film so reliant on contemporary technology as old-fashioned, to say nothing of one where the plot, unlike the absolute clarity of classic narrative moviemaking, is often so complicated enough you feel you’re a step behind. What earns the description “old-fashioned” is the movie’s comfort with big, sweeping emotion (supported throughout by that increasing rarity, a symphonic score, beautifully composed by Angelo Badalamenti), the ease with which Jeunet takes on the making of a period movie, and the way all his gimcrackery is put in the service of entertaining his audience. The mixture of a trickster director and classic movie conventions works better than you’d expect it to. Not because Jeunet has dressed up something that was tired to begin with, but because he brings those conventions emotional conviction. In “A Very Long Engagement” he’s a graceful combination of soloist and conductor.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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