Love may have been a battlefield for Amélie from Montmartre, but this time Jean-Pierre Jeunet is going to war for real. He's still obsessed with matters of the heart, but in this adap of Sebastien Japrisot's sprawling novel, he's more likely to squeeze it painfully than nurture it tenderly. For while A Very Long Engagement may focus on a woman's quest to find her lover, it has more to do with despair than whimsical romance. Jeunet taps into these deep wells of emotion with the same sure hand, spotlighting Mathilde as driven and delightful, while Tautou proves that Amélie's star-making turn wasn't a fluke, drawing tears and cheers with ease.
And Jeunet has once again opened his paint box: every one of Engagement's scenes, from the lushest landscape to the smallest personal moment is layered with beautiful imagery. Shots such as Mathilde's visit to a soldiers' graveyard and the view from the lighthouse which is central to the lovers' relationship are not so much a feast for the eyes as a three-day binge of sumptuous scenery.
The snag is that when applied to the horrors of war, the whimsy and carnage never quite gels. Fanciful trawls through character backstories are all good and quirky for a light-hearted fable, but when your story includes harrowing combat drama, it's jarring, not charming.
Plus, Jeunet unlocks his puzzle box at breakneck pace, making it hard to follow exactly what's going on. It doesn't help that Manech's fellow prisoners are all so similar and so briefly introduced that you'll be scratching your head trying to figure out whose fate you're watching. Thankfully, a clutch of cast members bring warm life into Mathilde's plight, particularly Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon, who injects a humanity into his role as her curmudgeonly but sincerely loveable father. Meanwhile, Jodie Foster impresses in what could have been a glorified cameo, her spot-on French accent provoking double takes of delayed recognition.
So while it may not be as sublime as their last effort, Engagement still proves that Jeunet and Tautou know how to pluck at our heartstrings.