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 17, 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 mouths of other contacts, many of whom swear he couldn't have made it (though none saw him die).
The plot has been around the block. It comes most recently 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. 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. 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 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, complete with explosions, crescendos, crinolines, and long shots of bustling plazas. The point, presumably, is to sweep us into an overpowering experience, but as a result, 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.