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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

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

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“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

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