Mere minutes into A Very Long Engagement, you realize you're headed straight for elitist nirvana. There's no way that Jean-Pierre Jeunet's wartime romance will replicate the commercial success of his charming 2001 bonbon, Amélie; axiomatically, the film freaks of decades hence will argue unto death that this beguiling but dark follow-up is by far the better work. You know the snobs I'm referring to: They're the same ones who wax haughtily about Rubber Soul being superior to Sgt. Pepper and the arrival of Col. Potter marking the moment at which M*A*S*H jumped the shark.
What is there to say to such folk, except: "Lay on, fellow snobs!" Engagement truly is Amélie's master, in ways that augur better for its legacy than its immediate profitability.
Based on a novel by Sébastien Japrisot, the film is equal parts mystery, romance and impassioned jeremiad against the inhumanity of armed conflict. Jeunet's adaptation involves us directly and personally in the quest of Mathilde (Audrey Tautou), a superstitious Frenchwoman who refuses to believe that her beloved fiance has perished in World War I. As far as anyone can tell, her Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) is one of a handful of soldiers who were left to die at the hands of the enemy as punishment for treasonous acts of self-mutilation. But Mathilde won't be satisfied with inference; she demands proof that Manech is gone forever from her arms. As she moves metaphoric mountains in search of a definitive answer, Jeunet uses her story as a sweeping symbol not just of indomitable womanhood, but of an entire race fighting to maintain its sanity in a frightening century. (Think it's a coincidence that our heroine was born Jan. 1, 1900?)
In many ways, the film is Amélie's mirror image, from the biographical anecdotes that introduce the characters of Manech's troopmates to the immaculate visual style that trades the sun-kissed avenues of Paris for the overcast skies of the battlefield. A similar affinity for whimsy hovers over the proceedings any movie that uses canine flatulence as a good-luck totem can't be a genuine downer but this time the stakes are higher, the attention to life's fragile details more heart-rending than heart-lifting. Tautou, a wonderful cosmetic presence in Amélie who marked time in subsequent pictures like Dirty Pretty Things, finally proves that she's an actress to be reckoned with. When she questions the eyewitnesses to her intended's fate, she's a model of gentle implacability. And try keeping your ducts dry as she trudges across the screen on legs hobbled by polio (an affliction that's infinitely more believable and effective than Penelope Cruz's gimmicky gimpery in Head in the Clouds).
Like Amélie, the film takes its time in reaching a denouement, but the going is rife with treat after treat. (Jodie Foster's midpicture appearance as an army wife with a secret carries carries the weight of an unexpected audience with royalty.) Think of this cinematic Christmas package as an economy-size candy sampler for revelers who prefer their chocolate dark and don't mind waiting a decade or two to have their tastes vindicated.