Un long dimanche de fiançailles

This 2004 movie is an unlikely mix of "Amélie" and "All Quiet on the Western Front" - a bizarre melange, yet it works beautifully. It tells the story of a young woman, Mathilde (Audrey Tatou) and her quest to be reunited with her fiancé, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), who may or may not have been killed on the battlefields of World War I. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, this movie has all the joys of his earlier movies like "Amélie", "Delicatessen", and "The City of Lost Children", dripping as it is in luminous shots of Paris and the French countryside, peopled as it is with quirky characters, enlivened as it is with a complex story that winds and swerves to its perhaps inevitable conclusion. Yet it also has a deeper message, capturing as it does the grim reality of trench warfare that made the first great war so horrific.

The life of the solders appears in the film as grim, filthy, muddy, and cold as it must have been in real life, one day dull and uncomfortable as the men try to escape the rain by crouching in indentations in the mud walls or huddling under tarps, the next deadly as they charge up rickety ladders and out onto the plains, only to fall to enemy fire. Is it any wonder that some of the bored and/or terrified tried to escape the battlefield by injuring themselves? The movie begins when five men with injured left hands who are presumed to have done this - Manech among them - are court-martialed and found guilty. Instead of being killed outright, though, they are sent from the trench - absurdly called "Bingo Crépescule" - into the thin stretch of no-man's-land that separates the enemies, there to die of injury, cold, or hunger.

His life on the front is in contrast to the pleasant days at home. Mathilde and Manech had met as children, when the young boy guilelessly asks the limping girl - she had had polio - whether it hurts to walk. Reluctant at first, she soon warms to his friendly approaches, and allows him to carry her to the top of his father's lighthouse on the Brittany coast, where they chase each other around the narrow walkway, laughing and screaming. As teenagers, they become lovers, and Manech vows to marry her, but the war intervenes, and he is shipped off to the front. After Manech's misadventure, he is pronounced dead, and Mathilde is informed, but she refuses to accept it. She feels in her heart that he is still alive, and determines to find out the truth of what happened that day at Bingo Crépescule.

The story is long and complicated, and the viewer may be forgiven for occasionally getting lost. There is a murderous prostitute, Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard) on a parallel quest; her lover was one of the five, and her inventive ways of rubbing out those who she believes had some hand in her lover's plight would make Edgar Allan Poe's eyes turn green. There is a mystery about two great friends who had had a falling out but were reunited at Bingo Crépescule, and the wife of one of them (played, with great fluency, by Jodie Foster) who knows something that may help Mathilde piece the story together. Aided by the kindly aunt (Chantal Neuwirth) and uncle (Dominique Pinon, a Jeunet regular) who have cared for her since her parents were killed in an accident; the lawyer who handles her inheritance; a dogged detective, Germain Pire (Ticky Hodalgo), "the peerless Pire"; and some of the men who were with Manech that fateful day, Mathilde begins to piece together a narrative that may leave Manech alive.

Jeunet loves his special effects, and he uses them to good advantage. The war scenes, as I've said, are frighteningly realistic. Also wonderful are the recreations of early 20th century Paris: Montmartre, studded with windmills once again; Gare d'Orsay, today a museum, here restored to a train station; the Opera House, fronted by horse-drawn carts and early automobiles; the long-since destroyed market les Halles, piled anew with fresh produce and eels. The rugged seaside where Mathilde lives is achingly beautiful, and the rustic kitchen where her aunt prepares pies and stews and cakes perfect down to the smallest period detail.

I loved "Amélie", but for my money this is the better movie, still whimsical and charming, but dealing with weightier themes. Tatou is wonderful once again, and in her dogged determination and optimism quite the opposite of her character in the earlier movie. Highly recommended.