Call it "Saving Private Ryan ... Once More With Feeling!" "Amelie Goes To War" or "Band of Brothers and a Cute French Girl" but idiosyncratic French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement is a thrilling blend of enchanting whimsy and gut-wrenching battlefield brutality. Adapted from the Sebastien Japrisot novel of the same name, this epic of the heart features a sterling performance from Audrey Tautou (previously teamed with Jeunet in the breakthrough Amelie) and finds Jeunet at the top of his directorial game.
Set during World War I, A Very Long Engagement centers on Mathilde (Tautou), a young disabled French woman who lives with her loving aunt and uncle (Dominique Pinon and Chantal Neuwirth) and refuses to accept that the love of her life, her fiancee Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) has perished somewhere on the muddy battlefields of France. Bound together by an unquenchable love, Mathilde and Manech embark on a journey that ultimately changes both of them forever.
Granted, that sounds like a rather glib overview but quite frankly, the serpentine plot is impossible to summarize without giving away much of what makes A Very Long Engagement both surprising and delightful. Quirky French sleuths, murderous whores, narrative detours that add color and life to an already admittedly busy film – so much of A Very Long Engagement is in the details. Jeunet has never shied away from filling his frame to overflowing with minute concepts and ideas that work beautifully as a cohesive whole and practically demand multiple viewings. (Keep your eyes peeled for an extended cameo from Jodie Foster, during which she speaks flawless French!)
Throughout the two hour and 15 minute run time, Jeunet (working from a script he co-wrote with Guillaume Laurant) keeps his narrative percolating, liberally applying the same fairy tale gloss that fuels even his darkest films (The City of Lost Children, Delicatessen). In the hands of any other director, the jarring stylistic jumps between sepia-toned vignettes of sun-kissed young love and starkly graphic images from deep within the bitterly cold trenches of World War I-era France would be not only unbearable but confusing. Jeunet handles them all with grace and wit, never once misstepping or striking a false note.
Sadly, this is also a film that was generally missed in wide theatrical release late in 2004 – one of the best films from that year that almost no one saw. Hopefully, A Very Long Engagement will find a much-deserved second life on DVD and not only flourish, but grow in stature over the coming years.
A Very Long Engagement is presented in a vivid, crisp 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that gives lush life to Bruno Delbonnel's sumptuous cinematography and the exacting production design that seamlessly evokes period Paris. An excellent image.
Offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 stereo (both in their native French with optional English subtitles), A Very Long Engagement boasts a very active soundstage – Jeunet keeps things buzzing throughout, utilizing directional effects to create an immersive, engaging world.
For a film that flew under a lot of radars, Warner Bros. has included a fair amount of supplemental material – a caveat upfront is that everything available here in only offered in French with English subtitles. The first disc boasts an engaging, informative commentary track from Jeunet that covers everything from adapting Japrisot's novel to the stylistic palette he applied to various scenes in the film.
The second disc houses the meat of the bonus materials – the centerpiece of which is the 73-minute making-of documentary "A Year at the Front." Tackling everything from storyboarding to location scouting, this thorough and quick-moving feature is time well spent. The 13-minute "Parisian Scenes" details the painstaking effort required to re-create Paris circa the early Twenties while the 12-minute "Before The Explosion" covers the creation of the hair-raising sequence where a stray zeppelin wreaks havoc in a makeshift hospital. Rounding out the package, 14 deleted and/or extended scenes are also included with optional commentary from Jeunet.
Maddeningly, A Very Long Engagement slipped by many moviegoers at the end of 2004 as one of the best films of the year. With this admirable two-disc set, those who missed it and those unfamiliar will have a chance to revel in Jeunet's minor masterpiece of love and faith. Easily recommended as a blind buy, this is a work which will only grow in stature. Highly recommended.