The bombing of Sarajevo in the 1990s left the streets of the Bosnian capital pocked with craters from exploding shells. Some saw only ugliness in the jagged holes. But others read an ironic poetry in their flower-like shapes: ”Sarajevo roses” are what the Sarajevans themselves call those hideously artful mementos of death that have been filled in and painted petal-red.
I mention the city’s breathtaking blooms (which challenge a pedestrian to choose between a respectful sidestep or an assertive footfall of life goes on) because there’s something of that same irony in A Very Long Engagement, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s gorgeous adaptation of Sébastien Japrisot’s novel about a young Frenchwoman’s search for her soldier fiancé at the end of World War I. Jeunet is, remember, the filmmaker whose whimsical, miniaturist, antiquey touch with Amélie created an irresistible, snowglobe-size world of romance with handmade details. The film also launched Audrey Tautou as a new aesthetic standard-bearer for international gamines. Now it’s as if quirky, dreamy Amélie herself has stepped into foxholes to observe men at war. This is a movie that considers graphic violence with a refined taste for the sensuous: Guts spill, blood spurts, corpses stink, but there is a handsome, absurdist humanity to the way Jeunet (who wrote the script with Guillaume Laurant) maps out the crossroads of human carnage and human caring.
A Very Long Engagement is also a narrative that revels in digressions — it’s an even more complicated construction than Amélie, juggling history and fiction with a large French cast and, in passing, a French-speaking Jodie Foster. Tautou once again stars, this time as Mathilde (another radiant boho type, she plays a mournful tuba as a hobby), who is convinced that her beloved is alive, although all signs point to his demise. Gaspard Ulliel (Strayed) plays Mathilde’s sweetheart, Manech, with a boyish sexuality that would make the hearts of Josh Hartnett fans flutter.
But Manech is only one of five soldiers, all of them wounded and court-martialed, who are sent out as a group to toil until death in a no-man’s-land between French and German trenches. And each of them, too, has a biography respectfully recounted, leading backward and forward and finally to Mathilde. As voice-over narration describes the beatific faith that only Tautou could pull off without looking like a simpleton, ”If Manech were dead, Mathilde would know.”
Jeunet has commented in interviews on Stanley Kubrick’s stunning 1957 war picture Paths of Glory, and there is, to be sure, something of the same outrage embedded in this newer picture of spreading insanity in an older war. But the counterpoint of ugliness and beauty, observed with the patience an artist might lavish upon a portrait of a beloved, is Jeunet’s own invention. And it is made for sore hearts as well as eyes.