Along with his erstwhile co-director Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet quickly established himself as France's premier fantasist with 1991's Delicatessen and 1995's The City Of Lost Children, a pair of dark comedies crafted with impeccable precision. The signature sequences in these movies are elaborate Rube Goldberg setpieces where events collide into each other like a row of dominos, with a cumulative rhythm that's as impeccably timed as the clicking of a metronome. After breaking away from Caro for the misbegotten Alien: Resurrection, Jeunet rebounded with the 2001 hit Amélie, which won the hearts of audiences worldwide with its whimsical tale of coincidence and fate. Yet for all of Audrey Tautou's considerable charm in the title role, Jeunet's need for a well-ordered universe proved as suffocating and exhausting as being trapped on an amusement-park ride.
Jeunet edges even further from fantasy with the luxuriant WWI epic A Very Long Engagement, and he comes out with another chilly contraption, with story elements that coalesce like gears locking into place. Re-teaming with Tautou, who again provides the film's only emotional ballast, Jeunet undercuts the stark brutality of trench warfare with an assortment of visual gags and caricatures that are too clever by half. As a director strongly committed to artifice, he wears realism like an ill-fitting suit.
With shades of Stanley Kubrick's Paths Of Glory, Engagement opens with a slow march toward execution by five French soldiers court-martialed for acts of self-mutilation intended to get them off the battlefield. Among the men slated for death is 19-year-old Gaspard Ulliel, a gentle young soldier who yearns to reunite with his fiancée, Tautou. Years later, everyone assumes that Ulliel died alongside many others in the nonsensically named "Bingo Crepuscule" trench. But Tautou still believes he's alive, and she conducts a wide-ranging search for him, pressing survivors and widows for any information on his whereabouts.
Inching along like a police procedural, A Very Long Engagement collects clues through a series of self-contained episodes and flashbacks that sketch a full picture, albeit a little too leisurely. Some isolated scenes are quirky and affecting, including Jodie Foster's moving turn as a widow whose efforts to get her husband excused from service have destructive consequences. But the overall tone feels as light and inconsequential as Amélie, which is especially disconcerting in a film with such graphic violence and sweeping emotional currents. Still a fantasist at heart, Jeunet seems incapable of taking anything seriously, and when he tries, the pretty pictures go awash with sentimentality.