Imagine the director (Jean-Pierre Jeunet) and star (Audrey Tautou) of “Amelie” reuniting and applying the same quick pacing and quirky humor of that 2001 French comedy to a World War I film that’s equal parts love story and lavish historical epic.
Sound impossible? With “A Very Long Engagement,” it’s not only possible, it’s one of the best films of 2004.
It’s romantic, funny, sweet, sad and sometimes brutally hard to watch, but it’s an astounding success on every level. It’s also beautifully shot and perfectly cast — even down to the smallest, briefest roles — with a heart-stopping supporting performance from Jodie Foster, who very much deserves consideration come Oscar time.
The doe-eyed Tautou is the darling of the film, though. Jeunet (who co-wrote the script with Guillaume Laurant, based on the novel by Sebastien Japrisot) clearly adores her, and why shouldn’t he? As Mathilde, the fiancee of a young French soldier who’s believed to be dead, Tautou is convincingly vulnerable and strong-willed, with the buoyant enthusiasm of a girl and the steadfast loyalty of a woman.
Mathilde learns that the love of her life, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel, who resembles a younger Ethan Hawke), has been court-martialed along with four other men, all of whom intentionally shot themselves in the hand with the hope of being sent home. Instead, they’re sent to fend for themselves in no man’s land between the French and German armies.
She believes in her heart that he’s alive, though, and is determined to find him. With the help of her aunt and uncle (Chantal Neuwirth and Dominique Pinon), whom she’s lived with since her parents’ deaths, she plays girl detective, piecing together documents and tracking down friends and relatives of the missing men.
Jeunet jumps around in time, and in vividly evocative flashbacks details how the men ended up as soldiers and how they’re struggling to survive now — if they survive at all. Manech tells the others about Mathilde, “I hear her heart beating like Morse code,” and her connection with him is just as strong, despite their brief time together.
Among the people who help with her investigation are Esperanza (Jean-Pierre Becker), the sympathetic sergeant who tried to aid the soldiers as they were cast away, and Germain Pire (Ticky Holgado), a hilariously energetic private eye. Even the mailman (Jean-Paul Rouve) amusingly joins in the adventure, at first skidding to a halt on his bike in front of Mathilde’s house, but eventually riding into the kitchen and even going upstairs to bring her news.
All those stylistic elements that made “Amelie” so intoxicating — the rapid-fire sequencing to tell a character’s back story, the slightly twisted sense of humor — exist here as well, bringing warmth and wit to a film that, in someone else’s hands, could have been antiseptic and self-important. (Hello, “Cold Mountain.”) For example, Mathilde has had polio since childhood, and she can walk (albeit with a limp), but she has no qualms about using a wheelchair to win sympathy from people she hopes will provide her with information.
Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography also mesmerizes with a mix of golden hues for the present day (instead of for flashbacks, a nice touch) and gritty greens and grays that bring the battle scenes viscerally to life.
But one of the most memorable parts of “A Very Long Engagement” is a brief appearance by Foster, as the wife of one soldier who ended up becoming romantically involved with another. You don’t realize it’s her at first; she’s in the distance when we first see her at a crowded marketplace, and she has a scarf pulled over her head. When she eventually starts speaking — flawless French, by the way, in that instantly recognizable, husky voice — it’s an absolute revelation.
Judi Dench won a supporting-actress Oscar for just seven minutes of screen time in “Shakespeare in Love.” Foster isn’t in “A Very Long Engagement” for very long, but she leaves you wanting more.