(2004)4Derek ArmstrongJean-Pierre Jeunet's most sophisticated achievement to date, if not actually his best film, A Very Long Engagement marks the first instance of the director's trademark techniques applied to a story of historical consequence. In addition to possessing Jeunet's usual busy narration and array of interconnected characters, it's also a visual tour de force, having earned Oscar nominations for both its art direction and cinematography. Jeunet brings equal loving attention to the grimy battlefields as to the pretty French countryside and fantastic cityscapes that have always fascinated him. But it's the film's opening minutes that really announce Jeunet's somber departure from Amélie, back toward his dystopian earlier work. He begins with a medley of five integral characters and the disparate ways they mutilate themselves to escape combat, in the darkest corners of the foxholes they imagine will be their tombs. It's a real attention-grabber, and it sets in motion a complex plot with numerous subordinate characters, featured in their own offshoot episodes from the main story. Perhaps not even its French-speaking audiences can fully follow A Very Long Engagement, with so many characters whose tenuous ties to each other must be constantly remembered, sans help from Jeunet. The task is further complicated for those who need to read subtitles in addition to gazing in rapture at the production design. Still, an ability to recount every plot detail is not essential to the enjoyment of A Very Long Engagement, which has so many optic pleasures that the need for clarity or continuity becomes de-emphasized. It's well worth that second viewing to appreciate all the subtleties. Notable among the performances are Audrey Tautou playing, well, Audrey Tautou, and Jodie Foster moonlighting in a French film with a finesse that's surprising, even if her unconventional choice of roles is not.