What language barrier?
His Parisian paean was a global hit. brought home the bacon too. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of new munitions comedy tells Donald Clarke that he is trying to read a book a day – and this interview is interfering with his plans
JEAN-PIERRE Jeunet made his name being unthreateningly odd. With Delicatessen, Amélie and The City of Lost Children, he turned surreal French whimsy into a surprisingly saleable product. Think of his films and you think of men in coloured braces driving battered Citroën 2CVs while piano accordions play Brel in waltz time.
Happily, Jeunet is not in Dadaist mood today. Burly in a grey T-shirt and broad smile, he comes across as confident and lucid. Why would he not feel secure? Jeunet is one of the few French directors to score genuine hits in non-Anglophone territories. I bet you, dear reader, have seen Amélie.
“Actually at every opening of every film you feel you would like to die,” he says. “I remember seeing the first line outside a cinema showing one of my films. I was really shocked. Who are these people? I don’t know any of them?”
If you want further evidence of Jeunet’s status as a commercial film-maker, just consider the advertising spend for his new picture. Micmacs, in which a band of eccentrics seek to bring down a munitions company, is being lavishly trailed on TV and radio. You can win trips to Paris. You can download the Micmacs ringtone (maybe). Alain Resnais never gets treated this way outside France.
“Well, every time one is a success, it comes as a surprise,” he says. “When we were making Delicatessen, my producer did a deal with a very big producer. And, during the shooting, the guy from the company came down and saw this scene with all the troglodytes in the sewer and he was very disappointed. ‘You are very lucky,’ he said. Some time later, after we sold the film all over the world, I said to him: ‘You are very lucky’.”
That film was co-directed with his original collaborator Marc Caro. The two men began as animators and, indeed, their subsequent features looked like the work of men who like to fashion material from cardboard and string with ink-stained hands. Whenever possible, like their compatriot Michel Gondry, they shunned digital effects and actually manufactured the required items.
“Oh yes. That is my conception of cinema,” he agrees. “When people ask me, ‘what you have to do to become a director’, I say, ‘do you want to become a director, or do you want to make things?’ Just go out and make things. That’s how you do it.”
Observing the credits of Jeunet’s films, you
“To be honest, I think the experience was much more interesting than the film itself. It was a sequel and a sequel is just a sequel. I didn’t really want to make Alien, but I felt that I couldn’t say no. Anyway, I reckoned that I would be fired after a day. I didn’t speak English then, after all. But then Sigourney Weaver was very nice and I wasn’t fired. I began to enjoy it. Still, I was happy to return to France where it is the law that a director is always in charge of his film. That is not so in Hollywood.”
Comebacks don’t come much more spectacular than Amélie. The jittery, energetic tale of an archetypal French gamine, the picture made a star of Audrey Tautou and offered yet another take on Paris as an enchanted wonderland. Not everyone was delighted with it, however. The film may have made unusual sums for a Frenchlanguage movie, but it still went down badly with a certain class of highbrow French critic. Was it a bit twee? Did it, perhaps, deal in sentimental clichés?
“In France, it is always same story,” he says with a sniff. “We have specialist critics who are very intellectual and they continue to hate everything.
“I have a theory: they cannot accomplish their own dreams, but they can become famous by destroying other people. And they are famous. You look up my worst critic on the internet and there is far more about him there than there is about me.”
Whatever you think about Jeunet you can’t deny that he has his own distinctive voice. Slightly deranged, keen on antiquity, he buries himself in a version of his country that existed on either side of the last war. His characters drive old-fashioned French cars in primary hues. They rarely use mobile phones or the internet. This is France – more particularly Paris – seen through a polished, refurbished adaptation of Jacques Tati’s durable lens.
A Very Long Engagement, set during the first World War, saw the director leaning away from his characteristic whimsy, but it’s back in Micmacs. Though the film is nominally set in the present, Paris – once again – often looks as it did in the years of Juliet Greco and Jacques Brel.
“You do have internet at the end of the film. This time I tried to make something more contemporary. You see a photo of Sarkozy. You see a modern tram. For me, it is Paris today. Maybe not for you.”
That’s true, but the eccentric gang at the film’s heart live in a lair that could easily have existed in the 19th century.
“You’re right,” he says. “I must own up. I love the aesthetic from those old days. I adore it and I amoften reproached for that in France. Oh it’s too sentimental and all that. I can’t avoid that.”
Jeunet admits that he does occasionally try to shake off his trademark aesthetic. It was, he argues, the fact that A Very Long Engagement was based on a novel (by Sébastien Japrisot) that enabled him to deliver such an uncharacteristic piece of work. With that in mind, he is currently reading a book a day as he searches for inspiration.
A book a day? That’s impressive stuff for a man in such demand. How does he find the time? “It’s easy when I do not have to spend my time talking to people like you.”
He says it with a smile, but he does look eager to get back to work.
All ears: Dany Boon and Marie-Julie Baup in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s new comedy Micmacs