A Very Long Engagement is directed by Amélie's Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and it stars Amélie's Audrey Tautou--which tells you pretty much all you need to know. A quick glance at the film's poster--showcasing idealized imagery, drenched in sepia tones and golden sunlight--nails the film's whimsically nostalgic tone. And anyone who's even remotely familiar with Tautou--who's built a following in America simply by being the adorable star of adorable French films--can tell exactly what they're going to get in Engagement's protagonist.
At first glance, Engagement's plot appears similarly typical. Mathilde (Tautou) and Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) are those involved in the titular engagement, though they spend most of their time apart, thanks to World War One rudely interrupting their giddy young love. But when soldier Manech goes missing, he's presumed dead by everyone with a lick of common sense--except Mathilde, who won't shut up about how he's still alive, even as all her delightfully quirky supporting players try to talk some sense into her.
It's here where Engagement promises a bit more than it delivers--as Mathilde goes all Columbo to investigate Manech's fate, Jeunet opens up the plot to focus on other WWI soldiers and their tangentially related characters and travails during the war--almost all of which are more interesting than Mathilde's sweet but utterly predictable tale.
Jeunet has always been most interesting when he tackles cynical, darkly funny subjects--like in Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, or even Alien Resurrection. In Engagement's inventive side stories, there are glimpses of a far more involving, imaginative Jeunet film--but they're shoved aside to make way for more lovey-dovey cuteness. (The rub's even worse when one realizes that despite her career's dependence on sweet, endearing roles, even Tautou's appeared in more daring--if ultimately worse--stuff like Dirty Pretty Things.) While Engagement's a pleasant enough way to spend an afternoon, it comes with a slightly sour aftertaste--the nagging notion that if Tautou hadn't fallen back on her inevitable schtick and Jeunet hadn't merely rehashed Amélie's feel-good formula, Engagement could have been far more engaging.