Reunited for the first time since the classic Amelie, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and iconic star Audrey Tautou team up for a very different yet simultaneously similar tale of love lost and found, this time taking on an epic scale and period setting.
Based on the book by Sebastien Japrisot, A Very Long Engagement begins as the First World War is drawing to its close. Tautou plays lame Matilde, a Breton orphan being cared for by her uncle Sylvain and hearty aunt Benedicte. She receives word that her fiance Manech is one of five soldiers who have been court-martialled and pushed into no-man's land to likely death. But if Manech were dead, Mathilde believes, she would know.
Facing up to a struggle to learn the truth, Mathilde sets about discovering whether Manech somehow survived the odds of trench warfare and the wrath of his own side. She employs a private detective and begins to locate various characters known to her fiance from the Front.
This being a Jeunet film, these characters are without exception quirky, if not a little contrived, an imaginative female assassin and a wooden-handed barman amongst them. They come complete with sparkling dialogue from Guillaume Laurant, the man responsible for Amelie's screenplay, which keeps the film stubbornly cheerful despite the horrific scenery on display in the scenes shot in the trenches, and Mathilde's circumstance.
The opening scenes at the Front make for a slow start, and stand in stark contrast to the homely Breton scenes featuring hearty French cooking, stunning coastal scenery and a generally optimistic outlook. Jeunet's stylised filming technique, complete with voiceover links and short episodes used to describe Mathilde's thoughts (much like those used in Amelie for similar purposes) leave us in little doubt as to the outcome of the film. We know Mathilde and Manech will be reunited but with this film it's not the destination but the journey that matters.
Jeunet's near-trademark style and Tautou's charismatic screen presence aside, an impressive array of special effects are also to be enjoyed. Amongst the wizardry on display is a 1920s Paris street scene complete with vintage vehicles, a zeppelin explosion and lingering aerial shots of what is surely France's most stunningly located lighthouse. Gaspard Ulliel as Manech is handsome in an offbeat, rather than classical way, and brings much to the role. And many of the character actors will be recognisable to fans of Amelie too.
While there's certainly much to admire, some viewers may leave with the nagging suspicion that Jeunet's stylised storytelling manner - calling to mind Moulin Rouge rather than All Quiet on the Western Front - leaves one with a sense of unreality. How can the lighthearted humour of Amelie be appropriate when relaying the horrors of trench warfare? But A Very Long Engagement isn't really about the war, which is incidental, but rather about two young people in love separated by circumstance. A love story rather than a history epic then, and a near-perfectly crafted one at that.