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:: A Very Long Engagement (Un Long Dimanche De Fiancailles)

A Very Long Engagement is a sumptuous foreign-language blockbuster that combines the ingenuity and passion of acclaimed French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, The City of Lost Children, Delicatessen) with Hollywood epic extravagance. Unfortunately Warner Brothers’ 35 per cent co-financing rendered the film ineligible for Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Film and disqualified it from competing in French film festivals.

Adapted from Sebastien Japrisot’s novel by Jeunet and Amelie scriptwriter Guillaume Laurent, A Very Long Engagement is the film Jeunet wanted to make for ten years. He reunited the Amelie production crew with its enchanting gamin star, Audrey Tautou, and the output combines Amelie’s lyricism and magical realism with the horrors of World War I.

Nineteen-year-old eccentric Mathilde (Tautou) is a classic Jeunet character: after suffering childhood polio, she walks with a limp; has a beloved, farting dog called Pois Chiche (Chickpea); and plays the tuba “because it sounds like a distress signal”. Unlike her character in Amelie, however, Tautou’s Mathilde is a determined young woman who refuses to believe her fiancé Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) is dead, despite compelling evidence to the contrary. Beginning in the 1920s, A Very Long Engagement follows Mathilde’s search for the truth of what happened to Manech in the war – as she uncovers a dishonourable cover-up in the muddy trenches of the Somme.

Shifting between the perpetually raining and gloomy trenches and the charming colour-tweaked French countryside, the film follows a partially non-linear structure, where events are re-told and layered as Mathilde builds on her discovery. She encounters some intriguing characters, with standout performances from Marion Cotillard (Love Me If You Dare) as vengeful prostitute Tina Lombardi, and the late Ticky Holgardo as private detective Germain Pire. Appearing unbilled, Jodie Foster impresses as the French-speaking Elodie – her story becomes one of the most interesting subplots.

A Very Long Engagement is lengthy and ambitious – it is sometimes difficult to follow so many characters and perspectives. But the abiding love Mathilde has for Manech; her faith that he’s alive; glues the film together to result in the most striking foreign language film of 2004.