The latest from visionary director Jean-Pierre (Amelie) Jeunet is 134 minutes long and not one of those minutes fails to contain something magical. This is a movie that has more dazzling sights and ideas than Hollywood sometimes comes up with in a year.
As the movie opens, the first World War is raging. We find ourselves at the front in the muddy trenches the French army has dug just a few hundred feet from the those of the Germans. We watch as five soldiers who have been convicted of wounding themselves to get out of hell are instead escorted to its front door. And we are introduced to each of them.
One is a simple, fresh-faced boy named Manech (Gaspard Ulliel). We learn that he is the son of a lighthouse keeper, that he has been driven somewhat mad by what he’s witnessed and that he has left behind a young woman he loves very much. Shortly after we learn these things, he and the other four prisoners are expelled into the no man’s land between the two armies where almost certain death awaits.
Awaiting his return in the countryside far away is Mathilde (Audrey Tautou). She is the center of the film, which is based on a novel by Sebastien Japrisot, but only one of its many enormously enchanting characters.
Mathilde is an orphan who lives with her aunt and uncle and is lame in one leg as a result of the polio she suffered as a child. When news arrives of her fiance’s demise, something deep within her tells her that a mistake has been made and that he is alive somewhere in need of her help. The viewer roots for her to be right, of course, but an abundance of government paperwork and the reality that the young man had not been pardoned provide ample reason for believing that she is simply an innocent girl in a state of denial.
Rather than languish and pine, however, she takes action which propels the rest of the movie. Mathilde pretends to be wheelchair-bound and wins the sympathy of a family friend whose influence provides her with access to top secret military records. “It doesn’t happen only at Lourdes,” she quips to a couple staring in amazement as she gets up out of the chair on leaving the building.
She places ads in a number of papers in an effort to track down eyewitnesses and survivors who might offer a piece of the puzzle of Manech’s fate. They result in a parade of characters conjured with invention, wit and warmth that are nothing short of spellbinding. Any one would justify a motion picture of his or her own.
There is the private detective she hires. Ticky Holgado has a field day playing the guy. Half con artist, half master sleuth, he squanders the money Mathilde pays him for “expenses” on prostitutes but stumbles upon promising leads almost in spite of himself. There is the woman who is so heartbroken by the loss of her true love that she is unable to speak of it to Mathilde; she has to tell her story in a letter. Jodie Foster pops into the film as from a parallel universe but quickly makes herself at home and turns in a quietly powerful performance.
There is Marion Cotillard as Tina, a courtesan who is on a quest of her own. One by one, she tracks down the people responsible for the death of her lover-also one of the five prisoners-and concocts a customized revenge. She has a genius for it. Each murder is a marvel of ingenuity.
There are countless others but, most of all, there is Mathilde who Tautou brings to radiant life and whom she imbues with a depth and breadth of emotion which may take many viewers by surprise. This is a marvelous character and a marvelous piece of acting.
Jeunet’s latest is a ripping yarn told with masterful panache, an inspired work deserving of far more than the nominations it has received for cinematography and art direction Oscars. This is one of the finest films-foreign or otherwise-to come along in years. It deserves recognition as such in awards circles and a very long engagement in theaters.