The Fabulous Worlds of Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Audrey Tautou and Jean-Pierre Jenuet on the set of AMELIE.French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet is probably most well known to American mainstream audiences for directing ALIEN: RESURRECTION, the fourth entry in the science-fiction franchise starring Sigourney Weaver. But in his native country, he has made a trio of stylish features which he helped conceive and develop from scratch. The first two, DELICATESSEN and THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, were done in collaboration with Marc Caro. The third — and so far his best work — is AMELIE, a romantic comedy fantasy that stands out as one of the best films released last year.

Because of the elaborate visuals in his films (with and without Caro, who served as ‘artistic director’ on DELICATESSEN and CITY), Jeunet is thought of more as a directorial stylist than an ‘auteur,’ but he contributed to the writing of all three of his French films, and he conceived the story and structure for AMELIE before bringing on a collaborator to work on the final script. Interestingly, AMELIE displays many of the stylistic elements apparent in his earlier work, but this time they are wed to a story that is far more personal and charming, with a warm depth of feeling missing from the black comedies he made with Caro and from his Hollywood horror movie.

Jeunet’s solo effort AMELIE details the adventures of the title character (played by Audrey Tautou), whose childhood disappointments (such as having to release her suicidal goldfish into a stream) leads her to become a reserved and shy young woman who avoids becoming emotionally involved with people. Her life changes when she discovers a small box of childhood mementos in her apartment, which she contrives to reunite with its owner. This success leads her to embark on a quest to help others, including her widowed father, whom she persuades to travel by stealing his garden gnome and sending it on a trip around the world, courtesy of a friend, who sends back snapshots of the wandering statue in front of various recognizable monuments.

However, Amelie’s biggest challenge is overcoming her own inhibition, which forces her to work by means of elaborate schemes that keep her always at a distance from those she is helping. When she briefly crosses paths with a young man (Matthieu Kassovitz) whose hobby is collecting photographs found discarded at public photo booths, she finds herself smitten, and embarks upon a plan to get his attention by returning his photo album, which he has accidentally left behind. Much of the movie’s joy arises from the way Amelie?s strategy (planting clues, making calls to pay phones, allowing herself to be glimpsed only from a distance) serves to make her intriguing while at the same time delaying the face-to-face romantic meeting that she simultaneously desires and fears.

According to Jeunet, AMELIE is a film he had been wanting to make for over twenty-five years. ‘When I arrived in Paris in ‘74, I began to do some notes in my notebook,’ he recalls. ‘I did a kind of collection of stories, memories. Almost everything is true. Not the garden gnome — I heard that story two hundred times. But almost all the stories are true. For example, the story with the goldfish — that’s my story. And the story of the photo-book is true?a friend of mine has a collection going for five years maybe. It?s a real book. We did a fake one for the film, because we had to get that organization of images.’

During the decades that the concept for AMELIE was little more than notes, Jeunet made DELICATESSEN and THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN. The first is a black comedy about an (apparently) post-apocalyptic world suffering from food shortages, where the butcher on the ground floor of an apartment building occasionally carves up new tenants to sell to his regular costumers. Where did the creator of AMELIE come up with such a bizarre idea? ‘It was very simple,’ he claims. ‘I had a flat. Just under my bedroom was the store for the butcher. Every morning at 7:00, I heard ‘Chop, chop!’ My girlfriend told me, “It’s time to move. They are killing the neighbor, and it will be our turn in one week.” I thought, “Ah! That’s a good idea!”‘

DELICATESSEN

This became Jeunet’s first produced feature film, thanks to limited locations and sets that made it affordable. ‘I had written two or three scripts together with Marc Caro, and it was too expensive — impossible to make a short feature. We lost ten years,’ he laments. ‘At this time, I thought, “Okay, [DELICATESSEN] is only one small setting, not a lot of people. It was very cheap, compared to THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, for example. It was very difficult to find the money. My producer [took] one year. Nobody wanted to do DELICATESSEN. Because at this time, it was only the Nouvelle Vague.’

Jeunet is referring to the famous French film movement of the ’60s (known as ‘New Wave’ in the U.S.). With its emphasis on realism and ordinary life, often filmed on real locations, the aesthetic of the New Wave movement stood in opposition to what Jeunet and Caro wanted to achieve with DELICATESSEN. ‘Forget the French New Wave!’ Jeunet states. ‘It was fifty years ago! In the end, we are going to lose and forget the New Wave. Because now we have a new generation of directors, and we try to make movies for the audience, not only for ourselves like the New Wave. I don’t like New Wave. Sorry. Maybe [Francois] Truffaut, and that’s it.’

Nevertheless, DELICATESSEN was a hit, earning its co-directors an international reputation and helping them to secure financing for a follow-up. CITY OF LOST CHILDREN was written by the same team of Jeunet and Caro in collaboration with Gilles Adrien, but the script actually predated their first film. ‘We wrote CITY before DELICATESSEN, and it was too expensive,’ Jeunet explains. ‘It was difficult to write the story, and I feel you can tell from the film. Now, I think we did a mistake. The story in a film is so important; you have to have the story before you do it. With CITY, it was the opposite. We wanted to make a film in a harbor with big boats, before we had the story.’ Laughing, he quickly adds, ‘That’s not to say it’s bad!’

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The visual style of DELICATESSEN and CITY led to the offer to come to Hollywood and direct ALIEN: RESURRECTION. But throughout all this time, Jeunet had been saving AMELIE. ‘This is a film I wanted to make for a long time,’ he explains. ‘When I made the films with Marc Caro? — you know we are not lovers; we are not brothers; we are just friends. I wanted to put some personal emotions in the film, and that’s the reason I kept this story for myself. I love black humor, but I wanted to make a positive story for my film. After ALIEN, especially, I craved freedom. I wanted to come back to Paris to make my own film with complete freedom.’

When Jeunet finally sat down to work out the script (with Guillaume Laurant), he remembered the lesson learned from writing CITY and made sure to have a strong structure that would tie together the multiple narrative threads from his notebook. ‘It wasn’t easy to find the concept,’ he relates. ‘To write one script with 200 stories was a real mess, believe me. I spent a lot of time to find the concept. In fact, the story of the woman helping other people was just one small story in the middle, and after awhile, one morning — I don’t know why — it was in front of me; I understood, ‘Oh, this is the center of the film.’ At this time, everything was easy to write — easy to find the money, easy to shoot. Everything was easy. I had everything I needed, and it was okay, because after ALIEN I was a big star in France.’

AMELIE is ultimately a love story, but one crafted with so much imagination and style that it edges into the realm of fantasy. This approach does not always earn critical approval in France, but according to Jeunet, ‘For this one, it was an exception: 450 good reviews and only six bad reviews.’ Still, the film was turned down for a slot at the Cannes films festival, a decision that the writer-director now considers with amusement. ‘After awhile, all critics began to give very good reviews, and everybody wanted to kill the boss at the Cannes Festival! For me it wasn’t a big deal; it’s just a festival. You know, we did the opening of Cannes with CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, and when you do the opening it’s a nightmare, because everybody in France wants to kill you, so I was pretty relieved to avoid the Cannes Festival.’

Not only a critical success, the film was a blockbuster in its native country before being picked up for distribution in the United States by Miramax, who positioned the film as a contender for Best Foreign Language Film at that year’s Oscars. Did the tremendous success take Jeunet by surprise. ‘Not at all!’ he responds with mock indignation. Then more seriously he says, ‘Sometimes, I think I’m dreaming. I didn’t expect a success like this, and I don’t understand why. I can tell you something,’ he adds. ‘I receive so many letters from young people, and they need romantic love stories. They are tired of hearing about condoms! They prefer this kind of story.’

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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