François Truffaut called them "privileged moments": brief shots that offer snapshots of the soul in a glance or caress. A Very Long Engagement, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's first film since the immensely popular and affecting Amélie, is full of those moments. In adapting Sébastien Japrisot's novel set in World War I and its chaotic aftermath, Jeunet and writer Guillaume Laurant have taken virtually the whole book and thrown it onscreen at a breathless, speed-reading pace. A fabulous image will appear, hurtle into your busy brain, then give way to the next.
The story is simple enough. An innocent soldier, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), has been exiled to no-man's-land by his superiors and is presumed dead. His fiancé--lovely, crippled Mathilde (Amélie's Audrey Tautou)--does all she can to find him. It's a fable of the noblest obsession, reflected in Tautou's poignant brown eyes. But it's just a part of Jeunet's grand, sad and comic panorama, which wants you to know everything about every character.
Can a movie have too much good stuff? Not when it's stuffed like this one. A bayoneted German soldier dies, and we literally see his last breath. A flashback to the childhood of Mathilde and Manech shows that he already loved her back then: if the crippled girl wants to see the sea from the top of the local lighthouse, he'll carry her up.
These and a hundred other privileges fight for your attention. So pay attention to this congested movie miracle. The headache it gives you will vanish soon enough; it's the heartbreak you'll take home. --R.C.