STUDIO: Warner Brothers
MSRP: $29.95 RATED: R
RUNNING TIME: 133 Minutes
• Commentary by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
• 14 Deleted Scenes with Commentary
• 3 ‘Making Of’ Ducumentaries

Speak the name Jean-Pierre Jeunet and several images spring to mind. I see the montage from Delicatessen, where an entire apartment is synchronized to the sounds of sex. I see the screaming, demented face of Krank. I even recall the one good scene in Alien Resurrection, where a xenomorph realizes his cellmates are about to tear him to pieces, so that his blood will dissolve their prison.

I realize, then, that Jeunet’s movies, even at their best, consist of beautiful tableaux and setpieces instead of well-crafted stories. I guess it’s fitting, then, that his latest movie is a triumph (if you can all it that) of fragments over cohesion.

The Flick

What happened in Bingo Crepuscule? For that matter, what the hell is a Bingo Crepuscule? The second question is easy: it’s a self-consciously ridiculous name given to a single lousy trench occupied by the French in World War I. Answering the first question, though, is more difficult.

Five soldiers are led along that muddy trench to be executed. Their crime: self-mutilation. A mangled hand is a ticket home. The quintet is thrown up into the no-man’s land between French and German lines, hopefully to be shot by the Jerries. And supposedly, that was their end. But what really happened, and who survived that day, is the mystery at the center of this romantic detective story.

In the days before the internet, Princess Leia was astounded to read slash fiction depicting her relationship with Chewie’s sister. How did they know?

The next obvious question is: why do we care? Ostensibly, it’s because Mathilde (Audrey Tatou) also cares. One of the soldiers, a young man gone simple after witnessing the horrors of war, is Manech, Mathilde’s fiancé. When she discovers that he might be alive, Mathilde crisscrosses France, gathering clues and interrogating veterans until she learns the truth.

Through her efforts and the participation of a generous and omniscient narrator, we hear quirky tales of lust, revenge and the brutality and everyday heroism of war. It’s all evidently designed to advance a bi-polar romantic/realistic portrait of war and aftermath. But the bundle of concepts is so broad that Jeunet seems to be shooting wildly. Just as an emotion or thought begins to take hold, the movie veers off to something else.

Snoopy was a fag.

Many images, like those in Jeunet’s other films, are genuinely interesting or neat-o or gorgeous. He’s got a great eye for communicating the horror and humanity of war. He’s just not so hot at stringing the pretty pictures together. The powerful images of five men left to die in the mud lose all resonance as a protracted series of alternate viewpoints recycle their wallop. It’s like being beaten to death with an old videotape copy of Rashomon.

The source material is a novel by Sebastien Japrisot. Depending on who you talk to, the book is either a romantic masterpiece, or an indulgent digression into the affairs of a supporting cast the size of P. Diddy’s entourage. I’m willing to believe that this story works much better on the page, where the small details which make each revelation and conversation important can be savored.

OK, my bad. Sometimes a gun really is a penis.

On screen, it’s not so much the size of the cast, but the way Jeunet uses it. He flits from one person to the next like a talent scout rifling through a stack of head shots. The few characters who stick at all, like the murderous whore Tina Lombardi (played with venom by the delicious Marion Cotillard), do so only because they have a few extra minutes of screen time.

Tatou displays the same plucky spirit, funneled into a more dour framework, that fueled Amelie. Here it feels like a retread. But with Jeunet reusing a whole stable of actors, many of whom now cruise on their own recognizance, she fits right in. Early on, the director even includes a sequence designed to recall that Delicatessen scene I mentioned before. It’s like he’s trying to get the need for visual digressions out of his system. On the commentary, he even admits some regret at the inclusion.

"Ce Contact de film ? C’était merde. Merde, je vous dis!"

If Jeunet was more confident in his craft and his audience he might have convinced me that this was working. But he layers in frequent flashbacks to remind us why the current conversation is important, and you can feel his command slipping. The story has several major components: the detective aspect, the romance, and the war tale. The latter is often brutally effective, but the sad energy generated by battlefield scenes isn’t put to work. Jeunet dashes from one thematic thread to the next, and never lets any of them fully come into their own.

You tell your husband, the Senator, that he’ll hang the Ten Commandments and he’ll like it.

A Very Long Engagement resembles a jigsaw puzzle which has been poorly assembled. The pieces are interesting and often beautiful in their own right, but as Jeunet has arranged them, there’s too little that’s compelling or engaging enough to justify the long ride.

5 out of 10

The Look

How good does this movie look? Whenever I started to glaze over due to some succession of new plot details, I’d find myself staring at something buried deep within the frame. The transfer is luminous. Jeunet loves minute details – his sets are peppered with posters, small trinkets, and the accumulated junk of the characters’ lives – and every one shows up, but none take over the screen. Warner’s has done a superlative job with the presentation, and it almost makes me willing to recommend the movie.

9.5 out of 10

The Noise

I have to admit that I watched this disc for review on a setup that wasn’t mine. While the monitor was great, the sound setup left a lot to be desired. I could easily hear Angelo Badalamenti’s gorgeous score, and am fairly certain that the crisp, loud war scenes are well balanced against the tender familial passages. But I’ll have to return with a real assessment of the surround separation and balance when I have a better system at hand.

9 (provisional) out of 10

The Goodies

Commentary by Jean-Pierre Jeunet – This guy likes to talk. No lulls here; he jaws through the whole flick. Details go from broad to pedantic, depending on what’s on the screen. I actually got a lot more out of the documentaries on the disc, in terms of what really made the film work, but this fills in the gaps pretty well.In French, with English subtitles.

"Hey, you guys still hate America?"
"Guess so."

Deleted Scenes – It says a lot that these 14 short clips could easily be exchanged with scenes that were left in the film, and you wouldn’t know the difference. In a film that’s already got way too much fat, it’s hard to see why these were the points where Jeunet found restraint.

When the leak isn’t so steady, sometimes you’ve just gotta coax it out.

Before The Explosion / Parisian Scenes / A Year At The Front – Explosion and Parisian are both short pieces explaining how some of the big effects shots were achieved. They’re fantastic, with plenty of detail on each step. I walked away with greater admiration for the technical achievements of the film. The explosion of the airship hanger was cool as hell. A Year At The Front is similar, though feature-length, so it covers the whole production. Thankfully, there’s no voice-over, just a lot of footage taken on set and behind the scenes. I love seeing how shots are planned out with models of the trenches in addition to storyboards. Honestly, after seeing the film once, I’d get a lot more out of repeat viewing of these features rather than sitting through the movie again.

8 out of 10

The Artwork

Read the title and look at this cover, and you might think the movie was about a couple who missed their wedding due to oversleeping. Even if you notice the line of soldiers crawling through the background, the art seems to be advertising pure sentimental tripe. While the movie often isn’t far evolved from that, pretty sleeping people do nothing to indicate the best flights of fancy contained within.

4 out of 10

Overall: 6 out of 10