The French actress Audrey Tautou's name seems so opportune, you wonder if she designed it for the occasion: a given name that conjures memories of another of the silver screen's...
The French actress Audrey Tautou’s name seems so opportune, you wonder if she designed it for the occasion: a given name that conjures memories of another of the silver screen’s dark-eyed, enchanting waifs; a surname that sounds like a French variation on the little dog who accompanied Dorothy to the Emerald City. It’s a name that seems to bring its own magic, and certainly Tautou’s career seems touched by a good witch’s wand: Still in her 20s, she found sudden fame three years ago as the star of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sparkling romantic comedy “Amélie.” The camera loved her saucer eyes, breathy voice and mischievous smile and audiences were equally smitten.
Now, Tautou and Jeunet have teamed again, for a very different kind of film: the war epic “A Very Long Engagement,” based on Sebastien Japrisot’s 1991 novel about a young woman determined to discover what happened to the fiancé presumed dead after World War I. The result is rather like what you might get if you mixed the whimsy and color of “Amélie” with the romantic sweep and grim battlefields of “Cold Mountain” an odd mix, but an effective one, particularly when Tautou is on screen.
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It’s not that she’s an especially gifted actress at least, not yet. Jodie Foster, in a 10-minute subplot as an adulterous wife, gives a performance of such aching honesty that we’re pulled up short, as the movie suddenly takes on an emotional depth that it didn’t previously possess. Tautou, by contrast, has a different kind of gift: She has an uncomplicated warmth that draws an audience to her, a sense that she possesses a secret we’d like to learn. (And it doesn’t hurt that the fashions of the early ’20s, such as a tall straw hat that looks like it might have been borrowed from Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter, look ravishing on her. )
“A Very Long Engagement” has some narrative problems. The book (a lovely read, told mostly through letters) has a complex plot, involving the stories of five French soldiers court-martialed for self-mutilation in the trenches. Among these men is Manech (ruby-lipped Gaspard Ulliel), who is engaged to Mathilde (Tautou) and is desperate to return home to her. Fast-forward a few years, and Mathilde, in the sunny bedroom of the farmhouse where she lives with relatives, learns that he may still be alive. His fate becomes a mystery for Mathilde to solve, with the intertwining stories of the other soldiers and their families key to the solution, and sometimes there are simply too many characters and plotlines, introduced too quickly by a rapid-fire narrator.
But, like “Amélie,” “A Very Long Engagement” is less about plot than about Jeunet’s often-breathtaking eye for color and light (carried out by “Amélie’s” director of photography, Bruno Delbonnel). The film blooms with shots of windswept fields, lighthouses in rosy sunset, sepia-toned rooms that look like perfectly faded picture postcards from a time long gone. And Jeunet has added much of his trademark whimsy Mathilde’s tuba-playing, a postman who rides his bicycle with panache, a barkeep who cracks nuts by cranking on his wooden hand which leavens the story’s essential sadness, a sense of so many lives forever altered by war.
The film ultimately becomes less important than the story Japrisot’s book tells, less about history and tragedy than about the light in a young woman’s eyes. Nonetheless, “A Very Long Engagement” works on its own terms, as a showcase for Tautou and as a reminder of the kind of beauty (particularly in its final moments, in an enchanted garden) that movies, at their best, can show us.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org