out of Five
Running time: 133
Entirely deserving of its unofficial subtitle ‘Amelie Goes To War’, this is a well-made, frequently enjoyable drama, although the whimsical direction often seems inappropriate for the darkness of the material.
The subtitle ‘Amelie Goes To War’ may seem like convenient Lazy Reviewer’s Shorthand for the fact that A Very Long Engagement is the follow-up film by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and stars Amelie herself, the pixie-like Audrey Tautou.
However, it is entirely justified by the style and content of the film, because, in addition to employing all of Amelie’s directorial tricks and flourishes, Jeunet also uses most of the same actors. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jeunet has taken to using the shorthand himself in interviews). At any rate, it doesn’t quite work, as Jeunet’s whimsical style often sits uncomfortably alongside the darkness of the material.
Amelie Goes To War
A Very Long Engagement is adapted from the best-selling novel by Sebastien Japrisot. Audrey Tautou stars as Mathilde, an orphaned victim of childhood polio, who discovers that her fiancé (Gaspard Ulliel) has been court-martialled for cowardice and sent to certain death in No Man’s Land during World War I, along with four other men.
However, despite the evidence to the contrary, she believes that her fiancé isn’t dead and sets out to find the truth, aided by dogged detective Germain Pire (Jeunet regular Ticky Holgado, who sadly died a few months after filming completed).
The performances are excellent. Mathilde is necessarily a much more downbeat character than Amelie, but Tautou and Jeunet still provide her with magical moments, such as the running theme of the little bets she makes with herself. Holgado is wonderful as Pire (if he looks familiar, it’s because he played the set of four passport photos in Amelie) but there are strong performances from the rest of the supporting cast, including, rather bizarrely, Jodie Foster, using her own note-perfect French accent. In fact, Foster’s section is one of the film’s highlights – it’s genuinely moving and it makes you wish Foster made more films.
Corsican Whore Bent On Violent Revenge
To be fair, Jeunet’s snappily-edited, multi-layered style comes into its own when used to introduce each new character and sub-plot, though there are a bewildering number of characters scattered throughout the film, to the point where all the names and moustaches might start to blur into one after a while. (That said, you’ll probably remember Marillon Cotillard as a Corsican whore bent on violent revenge – her scenes are another of the film’s highlights).
Ultimately, however, the whimsical direction, though inventive and energetic, doesn’t sit right with the darkness of Japrisot’s source material and eventually becomes irritating over the course of the film’s lengthy running time. It also doesn’t help that the film is frequently reminiscent of the latest Stella Artois ad. Finally, the film’s climax lacks the requisite emotional punch that might have resulted from a more serious approach.
To sum up, A Very Long Engagement is definitely watchable thanks to the combination of Tautou’s performance and Jeunet’s direction – it’s just that the subject matter is somehow compromised by being too much like Amelie, to the point that the overall effect is disappointing.