A Very Long Engagement, the new film by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (most famously of Amélie), will have its fans. For one thing, there's no denying its beauty, an onslaught of gorgeous tableaux, painstakingly arranged and shot through filters to exclude colors that don't suit (i.e., anything other than sepia or charcoal). There's Audrey Tautou, with her Hepburn mixture of sweetness and ferocity, hobbling about Paris on a polio-stiffened leg. There's the Jeunet talent for capturing a character in a single detail ("She plays the tuba because it sounds like a distress signal"). There's a shaggy dog named Chickpea and a cameo by a famous American actress (doing French!) whose name has been eliminated from the credits. And there is, finally, the epic story of a young woman who refuses to relinquish hope that her lover, missing for three years since he went off to the Great War, still lives.
But it's not a great movie. It wants to be great; it marries a heavy-hitting tradition of wartime storytelling with the bravado of a Hollywood blockbuster, the kind whose trailer promises to testify to "the atrocities of war" and "the enduring power of love." With confidence and ambition, Engagement courses through countless lives and scenes, troweling into the pasts of its minor characters (and digging up delicious details) to posit a comprehensive picture of postwar France and funneling it all through the weeping eyes of a precious heroine (Mathilde, played by Tautou) and her precious devotion to Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), her childhood love. But it's too much, and too familiar, to succeed. Hollywood has given Jeunet its blessing, and Jeunet has made a film worthy of Hollywood -- which, alas, is not saying much.
The film opens in war, in the deep and flooded trenches of the French front lines. Manech is a boy, just seventeen, and already shell-shocked. When he arranges to get his hand shot, he's court-martialed and exiled into the no-man's-land between the French and German camps, where he'll meet almost certain death. And then is heard no more. Mathilde, back in the idyllic Brittany countryside, refuses to believe that he is lost. She struts off to Paris, hires a detective and becomes one herself, hunting down every snippet of story that might lead her to her love. Piece by piece, Manech returns, if only to die yet again, in the mouth of another contact, many of whom swear he couldn't have made it (though none saw him die).
The plot, for starters, has been around the block. It comes most immediately from a novel by Sébastien Japrisot, and before that from countless other writers, and before them from Homer, in Penelope, who weaves away a score of years while waiting for her warring husband. The film seems to know as much. Its present (1920, mostly) is filmed in sepia, as if to remind us of the aged and weathered photographs from that time, and also to say that everything has already happened and is already a memory. (The war scenes, by contrast, offer a rich palate of gunmetal gray, trench-mud gray, corpse-in-gray-uniform gray and the charcoal-gray smoke of explosions.) Save for a bit of wrangling with chronology, Jeunet does nothing to refresh the story; he doesn't even bother to make Manech likable, or compelling, so that we wish for his return. Of course, it's Mathilde's character that counts -- but shouldn't we feel that her quarry is worthy of such dogged pursuit?
Aesthetically, Engagement is a feast. Every scene is crammed with costumes, sets and props -- or if not those then with a sense of its own important beauty. The film, in fact, is stuffed to bursting, overwhelming in its richness; can Jeunet wring emotions from a parade of visual treasures? (He seems to want to.) This copiousness is a problem. The film feels sodden, drenched not merely with mud and rain and period detail but with sentiment, consistently advertising either the wretchedness of war or the grief-stricken longing of its heroine. In the end there isn't much room for audience participation. Even the score, by the minimal-leaning Angelo Badalamenti (a critical member of David Lynch's creepiness factory), swells with urging. Feel the longing, it implores. Sing, O muse, of themes both ancient and universal. And so on.
Why does Jeunet want to create something that's already been done? Isn't originality his strength? Both Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children offered rivetingly bleak, haunting visions that we'd never seen before; Amélie was forgettable, but it had the Jeunetesque charm of the quirky detail. In A Very Long Engagement, Jeunet drags out one of the oldest of stories, hefts it a couple of inches and then hammers it onto the gigantic backdrop of the Major Hollywood Production, replete with explosions, crescendos, crinolines and long shots of bustling plazas. The point, presumably, is to sweep us into an overpowering experience, but the result is nothing but allusive and memorial. And boring. This film is boring, at least partly because it is trying desperately to be big.
Maybe next time Jeunet will refuse the Hollywood millions and return to his creative roots. But to hope for that -- well, that would be akin to believing that a long-lost lover, missing in action for more than three years, would some day return home.