Dir: Jean-Pierre Jeunet.France. 2004. 134mins.

A flamboyant mixture ofbattlefront spectacle, home front romance, revenge drama, and detective story 'Jean-Pierre Jeunet's first film since Amelie is all this and more.Cinematically bigger and dramatically richer than that phenomenally successful2001 monument of whimsy, A Very Long Engagement confirms Jeunet as amaster showman who has no need to work in English to make visual strikingentertainment of international appeal.

This said, whether this newfilm will beat Amelie at the French box office (9.2m admissions) isanother question. Amelie was a phenomenon ($174m worldwide), a prototypeof sorts grounded in a certain French populist cinema that seemed to have diedwith Rene Clair. Long Engagement, though based on a best-selling novelby one of France's best-known (and cinema-friendly) thriller novelists,Sebastien Japrisot, is made of sterner stuff, grounded as it is in a horrifichistorical reality (the First World War) and teeming with a gallery of bastards,cowards and grotesques.

Still, the film's darkervision is modulated by the romantic optimism of the young woman at its centre,embodied, of course, by Miss Amelie herself, Audrey Tautou, touchingly andadmirably neo-Victorian as a rock of faith in a sea of cynicism, doubt andresignation.

Warner Bros, whichunderwrote much of the film's Euros 46m ($47m) cost and will distribute thefilm worldwide, should have nothing to regret for its faith in committing tosuch a high-risk foreign-language project. French, US and international successfor the film should put paid to the controversy that has rocked the productionsince before cameras rolled, when industry representatives denounced the filmas a Trojan Horse being used by an American major to gain access to itsjealously guarded reserve of production aid schemes. Rarely has the French fearof American encroachment on France's "exception culturelle" been so displaced.

InNorth America, Warner Independent Pictures (WIP) is opening the film just amonth (Nov 26) after the French release in an effort to generate nominationsheat for the year 2004. Ineligible as the French foreign language Oscarsubmission since it opened in France after the new Sept 30 deadline, A VeryLong Engagement is being pitched by WIP as a best picture contender and itsUS box office gross should build steadily on the back of that campaign. It willenjoy a long life at the US specialised box office fuelled by word-of-mouth andcritical acclaim. UK and other major European markets open at the end ofJanuary.

In adapting Japrisot's 1991novel (published in English in 1994), Jeunet and long-time writing partnerLaurant had their work cut out. The starting point is the story of how fivesoldiers at the front in 1916 are court-martialled for self-inflicted wounds toget themselves invalided out of service. They are sentenced to death not byfiring squad but by a more sadistic approach: marched to the front lines anddispatched unarmed into no man's land to be picked off by German snipers and planes.

As it turns out, Manech(Ulliel), one of the soldiers, is Mathilde's (Tautou) childhood sweetheart whohas virtually lost his reason in the unending carnage. Disbelieving theofficial version of her lover's death, Tautou hires a private detective afterthe war to piece together the story of these men's final hours and discover if,as she believes, her lover may have survived the war after all.

Quickly, the film opens upto interweave the various backstories of these ill-fated soldiers (artisans,workers and peasants) as Tautou undertakes her dogged personal quest acrosspost-war France. In counterpoint, we also follow another war "widow,"Cotillard, a sort of avenging angel determined to punish those directlyresponsible for her man's ignominious death.

Jeunet and Laurant do amostly commendable job in squeezing so much material and characters into 135minutes of screen time, though there are inevitable signs of strain and forcingthat create narrative bumps. (In particular much of Julie Depardieu's roleseems to have been left on the cutting-room floor).

But even when the screenplayslumps under the weight of its narrative, Jeunet's direction usually gives theaction wings. His recreation of life and death in the trenches has apost-Spielberg immediacy that compares favourably with previous Great Warmovies, from All Quiet On The Western Front to Paths Of Glory(and, more recently, Bertrand Tavernier's 1996 epic of men at war, CaptainConan). Other moments of horror stand out, including an unflinching (butdistantly observed) guillotine execution, and the bombing of a dirigiblehanger-cum-military hospital.

Yet for all its darkness andtragedy, Jeunet still finds plenty of room for moments of his signature humourand some recurring comic figures as a Jacques Tati-esque country postman whobrings Tautou news of her investigation.

Thanks to top-notch specialeffects and Delbonnel's lyrical, dynamic camera, Jeunet also has a field dayrecreating the Paris of the 1910s and 1920s. There are loving cameo evocationsof the Place de l'Opera, the Halles food market, the Orsay train station (longbefore it became a museum), the Trocadero, Paris underwater when the Seineoverflowed in 1910 - and, yes, there's a stopover in Amelie country,Montmartre.

The large colourful castbalances Jeunet regulars with less familiar faces. Among the former are Pinon,as Tautou's uncle and guardian; Dreyfus, in dependably grotesque mode as acorrupt superior officer who gets a most original comeuppance at the hands ofthe avenging Cotillard; and the late Holgado, delightful as the eccentricprivate detective with the kind of name that invites the worst, groan-inducingpuns. No doubt the film's biggest surprise performance comes from Jodie Foster,touchingly convincing (and undubbed) as a Parisian market stallholder whoseimpotent soldier husband asks her to have a baby with his best friend.

The technical departmentsincludes other Jeunet faithfuls, including Aline Bonetto, who here joins thefront rank of French production designers, and costume designer Fontaine.

Prod cos: 2003 Productions, Warner Bros France
Tapioca Films, TF1 Films Production

US dist:
WarnerIndependent Pictures
Int'l dist: Warner Int'l
Francis Boesplug
Jean-Pierre Jeunet GuillaumeLaurant based on the novel by Sebastien Japrisot
Bruno Delbonnel
Herve Shneid
Prod des:
Aline Bonetto
Madeline Fontaine
Alain Carsoux (Dubois), LesVersaillais
Angelo Badalamenti
Main cast:
Audrey Tautou, GaspardIlliel, Clovis Cornillac, Ticky Holgaldo,Jodie Foster, Marion Cotillard, Jean-Pierre Daroussin, Julie Depardieu,Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Albert Dupontel, Andre Dussollier, Dominque Pinon, DenisLavant