“A Very Long Engagement”

If you wish to see writer-director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and lead actress Audrey Tautou together in a sweet, dreamlike fairy tale like their previous outing “Amelie,” you will be sorely disappointed in the pair’s new film. The rest of us will be able to enjoy a sweeping, deeply affecting love story underpinned by the madness and absurdity of the First World War.

Based on the novel by S?bastien Japrisot, “A Very Long Engagement” (Warner Independent Pictures) follows a young woman, Mathilde (Tautou), in search of her fianc? Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), who was condemned to death for shooting himself in the hand in an attempt to escape the trenches of Somme. The film’s title quickly makes its dual meaning plain, exploring with equal skill the horrific nature of the war and the seemingly endless depth of Mathilde’s love.

The screenplay, co-written by Japrisot and Jeunet, affords the stunningly beautiful Tautou the opportunity to exercise an acting range far exceeding anything she displayed in “Amelie.” Mathilde is not the doe-eyed pixie that Amelie was; she is quite human, and Tautou brings this much more realistic character to life, inhabiting Mathilde and seamlessly essaying her longing for Manech. In every frame of the film that she doesn’t share with Ulliel, Tautou makes us believe that even after a war as horrific, hopeless and seemingly meaningless as the First World War, hope may indeed be eternal. Her unique, almost luminescent appeal breaks down the barrier between the viewer and the screen; we want Manech back as much as she does.

Jeunet frames Tautou as lovingly as he did in “Amelie” and, conversely, depicts the madness and sickness of World War I as unflinchingly as Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam or Steven Spielberg’s World War II. He accentuates his dual narrative using gritty, almost colorless film stock for the scenes following Manech in the trenches and lush sepia tones for Mathilde’s pre-war romance with Manech and post-war search for him, wordlessly conveying the hopelessness of the war and its stark contrast with Mathilde’s vibrancy.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet has always dealt in extremes. In his previous films, he has pushed his explorations of the human psyche so far that his narratives have demanded fantastic qualities (“Alien Resurrection,” “City of Lost Children,” and even “Amelie”). But with “A Very Long Engagement,” Jeunet’s dichotomous examination of love and hatred is tangible enough to remain within the bounds of a believable, humanist story and strong enough to touch his audience in powerful ways. “Engagement” is one of the most emotionally resonant film romances in recent memory.

“A Very Long Engagement” opens in Washington, D.C. Dec. 17.

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