It's the director of "Alien Resurrection" teaming up with the guy who would go on to play a young Hannibal Lecter, so this is bound to be either one hardcore thriller or, you know, actually tolerable. Granted, I thought "Hannibal Rising" was alright, but when it comes to "Alien Resurrection", sorry, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, but I'm not forgetting that, as surely as I'm not forgetting Audrey Tautou for her not so fashionable debut to American films. "The Da Vinci Code" was painfully long enough, so if this affair is going to be very long for Tatou's tastes, then it better be good. Well, sure enough, it's certainly much better than "The Da Vinci Code", and if you for some reason think that placing this arty French much further ahead than a commercial American film makes me sound a bit snooty, come on, the only other film that I've seen with the apparently famous Audrey Tatou is her only American one, so I'm one of those handful of critics who like to keep things domestic, unless of course the domestic film stinks. After seeing this film with "The Da Vinci Code" and Jeunet's only American film in my head, I guess it's safe to say that this film proves that it's nice to watch the occasional good foreign flick, or at least that Jodie Foster is still hunting Hannibal Lecter, because this film also stars Gaspard Ulliel, and features a small appearance by Foster, ostensibly intending to either apprehend Lecter or to show that her French accent is decidedly better than her southern accent. Man, speaking of very long engagements, this opener is starting to wander out of entertainment value, kind of like this film does at times. No, the film entertains just fine, and certainly rewards by the end, yet the fact of the matter is that not all goes terribly smoothly in this affair.
You know, as much as they call it very long, this engagement doesn't really seem long enough, or at least it doesn't at times, as the film will spend more than a few occasions glossing over exposition, typically through narrated montages of happenings that get kind of repetitious after a while, before making a sudden slow-down that is generally comfortably paced, but all too often descends into a borderline limpness that may never be dull, per se, but certainly bland things up. The film is adequately entertaining, like I said earlier, but when it slow down, it throws you off, and not just because slow spells bookend a bit of unevenness in pacing, whose inconsistency still isn't as awkward as the occasions of inconsistency within tone. With this film, I have now only seen two Jean-Pierre Jeunet films, so I can only assume that he does this often, but one of the things that I absolutely hated the most about the disaster that was "Alien Resurrection" was it's being so actively over-the-top in its embrassingly unfitting and fall-flat tongue-in-cheek attitude, and while such cornball whimsy isn't as grating in this film as it could have been, it's much more prevalent than it should be, tainting conceptually consistently serious subject matter with many a moment of silliness that doesn't fit and, more often than not, doesn't even hit by its own right, serving only to throw off dramatic momentum that is hurt enough by cheesiness' also finding its way into the drama at times. I feared that French romantic dramatastic histrionics would work its way into this affair at points, and sure enough, not all is completely genuine in this film's dramatic depth, which is generally effective, but sometimes takes on distancing melodrama that would be easier to forgive if it wasn't for its familiarity. The film is kind of formulaic, and I guess there's no way around that, because subject matter of this type, while worthy, has been too done to death for all that much uniqueness to take place, no matter how much this film tries, yet conventionalism leaves you to step back and meditate upon this film's handful of distinguishing factors, including the not so flattering ones, from uneven areas to overambition that leave the final product to fall short of its potential. Of course, as shaky as this affair is, you remain engaged through and through (Pun oh so very much intended), unable to ignore shortcomings, but even less able to ignore strengths, even when it comes to production value.
Again, I haven't seen too much from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, but what handful I have seen of Jeunet's tastes show me that the man knows production value, as this film further proves through intricate production designs by Aline Bonetto that bring early 20th century Europe, inside and outside of the warzone, to lush life that, when accompanied by Madeline Fontaine's fine costume designs, sell you on the era, while the soul of this film owes a large part of its being so effectively sold at times to Angelo Badalamenti's score, which is formuliac, but powerful, with a rich range that dances between hauntingly deep to wonderfully sweeping, but nevertheless keeps consistent in loveliness. The film's musical artistry is outstanding, both by its own right and as a compliment to the film's tasteful heart, but at the end of the day, it's the film's visual artistry that truly stands out, as the great Bruno Delbonnel delivers on cinematography that is not only framed in a fashion that gives you a fine feel for both the sweep and intimacy of this mini-epic, but a highly distinct greenish orange, almost gold color palette whose lushness has to be seen in order to be believed, gracing every shot with profound, painting-like spectacle that takes your breath away time and again, and is among the things most worthy of appreciation in the final product. Boasting richly thoughtful production value, arrestingly tasteful musical and photographic value, and, yes, even exceptional technical value that puts anything from strong visual effects to thumping sound design to immersively good use, particularly during the typically tense war sequences, this film is nothing if not well-crafted when it comes to aesthetics, and accels exceedingly stylistically, though not so much so that the final product forgets its substance. Sure, whether it is because other standard differences or whatever, the film's style is stronger than its storytelling, but there's no ignoring the many moments in which Jean-Pierre Jeunet settles down all of the silliness and unevenness to deliver on effective resonance to break up a consistently fair degree of inspiration that gives you a compellingly decent feel for the value within this worthy, if formulaic story concept. The film is rarely, if ever truly movingly powerful, but where Jeunet could have overstepped pacing issues, dramatic shortcomings or simply awkward ambition, to the point of sparking underwhelmingness, he finds himself with enough control of resonance to engross more often than not, with no light help from a cast that is just as inspired. The acting isn't exactly killer on the whole, but most everyone has his or her time to shine, whether it be such supporting players as the particularly effective Marion Cotillard as a vengeful woman, or leading lady Audrey Tautou, whose subtly human and engagingly convincing portrayal of a woman seeking out the lost love of her life whose fate is in question. I wish I could say that the final product is, on the whole, as strong as it could have been, or at least as strong as it wants to be, but no matter how much this ambitious effort slips up, it accels enough, both stylistically and dramatically, to thoroughly engage, occasionally move and ultimately reward.
To end this engagement, pacing unevenness creates slightly slapdashed moments and blad slow spells, while tonal unevenness creates moments of whimsy silliness that doesn't work, joining histrionics and conventionalism in shaking the dramatic foundation that is left too tattered to be as firm as it could have been, but not so tattered that exceptional production value, powerful score work, stunning cinematography and a compelling story - brought to life by Jean-Pierre Jeunet's sometimes very effective direction and a collection of inspired performances - are obscured as the engaging strengths that go into making "A Very Long Engagement" a flawed, but ultimately rewarding drama.
3/5 - Good