A very long but engaging film

Audrey Tautou of 'Amélie' fame stars in a wartime romance.

French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet and star Audrey Tautou scored an international hit with "Amélie" in 2001, and may pull it off again now, especially if the Oscar race bestows a nod or two on their new film.

It's called "A Very Long Engagement," and at well over two hours it's a very long movie - longer than necessary, that is, for the story it has to tell.

This flaw aside, the drama is well crafted and sometimes touching, with especially forceful opening scenes. The film begins during World War I, the "war to end all wars" that sowed global death and destruction in ways guaranteed to bring additional death and destruction in its wake. The opening sequence dumps us directly into the trenches of the Somme with the hapless soldiers who serve there.

Most of them would rather be somewhere very different, and some aren't afraid to take steps assuring they'll be discharged sooner rather than later - illegal steps, involving self-inflicted injuries to make them unfit for duty.

Five get caught, court-martialed, and sentenced to death. Their execution takes a peculiar form: being hurled from a trench into no-man's-land, thus stirring up the enemy and facilitating a counterattack.

We then zoom to France and meet Mathilde, a disabled yet lively young woman (Ms. Tautou) who was engaged to marry one of these men. Hearing the news, she refuses to believe her fiancé is dead, and launches an investigation to find out where he might be. The movie follows her quest, which runs into enough bizarre obstacles and diversions to make this a picture Franz Kafka might have appreciated.

Mr. Jeunet is a director who likes to direct, and my main quarrel with his earlier works - the popular "Alien: Resurrection" and "Amélie" as well as "Delicatessen" and "City of Lost Children," on which Marc Caro was his partner - is that they value self-conscious visual cleverness over strong ideas and emotions. "A Very Long Engagement" is the first movie where Jeunet puts his personal style at the service of his story, not the other way around.

Add the talented Jodie Foster, speaking perfectly good French in a fairly small role, and you have a movie with strong chances in the coming awards season.

Rated R; contains violence and sex.

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