Friday, February 15, 2013

The Auteurs #20: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

One of the most unique visionaries to come out of France in the 1990s, Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a filmmaker who stood out from many of his French luminaries by bringing in his own quirky vision into the world of film. From his early collaboration with Marc Caro to his colorful presentation of modern life in France in the 2000s. Jeunet created a new language in film that wasn’t afraid to be offbeat and comical while also giving oddball characters a voice. Set to return with his seventh feature film in an adaptation of Reif Larsen’s novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet for The Young and Prodigious Spivet. Jeunet has already made films that can be called his own.

Born on September 3, 1959 at the Loire river port of Roanne in France, Jeunet was someone who had been fascinated by cinema in his teens where he bought his first camera around that time. While studying animation at the Cinemation Studios, Jeunet would meet another animator who shared Jeunet’s fascination with the world of the whimsy in Marc Caro. Caro was also someone who had a passion for set design and comic books as he would help Jeunet realize his vision. The two would work together on various projects as they would begin one of the most fruitful collaborations in film.

The Early Short Films

During the 1970s, Jeunet and Caro collaborated on two animated shorts in The Escape and The Merry-go-round that were presented in the form of stop-motion animation. With Jeunet focusing on framing and camera tricks while Caro did all the storyboarding and design work, the two would use the experience to create their first live-action short film called Le bunkerde la derniere rafale (The Bunker of the Last Gunshots) about military platoon hiding in a bunker waiting for the enemy. The project marked the first collaboration between several personnel who would be part of the Jeunet-Caro team that included co-writer Gilles Adrien and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. The short would display a sense of quirky visual style as it was shot in grainy 35mm with Jeunet, Caro, and Adrien each playing small roles in a 26-minute film that contained no dialogue.

The second short that Jeunet and Caro created is a much smaller short shot in color called Pas de repos pour Billy Brakko (No Rest for Billy Brakko) that ran for four-and-a-half minutes that revolved a man working endlessly. Their third short in 1989’s Foutaises (Things I Like, Things I Hate) is a simple story about a man describing the things in life he likes and dislikes. Shot in black-and-white, the short marked the first collaboration with actor Dominique Pinon who would become one of the many regulars in the company of actors Jeunet would work with throughout his career. The seven-minute short was a hit in film festivals as it brought the attention of studios in France who wanted to work with the duo of Jeunet and Caro.


For their first feature-length film, Jeunet and Caro decided to create a film about a post-apocalyptic world where food is in short supply and the only currency available is grain. Entitled Delicatessen, it would revolve around a group of people living in an apartment above a deli where its butcher kills a new tenant to feed his other tenants as a new tenant arrives who would prove to be a big challenge to the butcher. The film would feature Dominique Pinon in the lead as the new tenant in former circus performer Louison as he would play a protagonist that would be common place with the films that Jeunet would do. Often as it revolves around an individual who is an outsider of sorts yet finds himself being connected to other oddballs and make way to standout against everyone else.

For the film’s production, Jeunet and Caro would utilize an ensemble that featured some of France’s finest actors as some of them would become part of the company of regular actors that Jeunet would work with in his career. Among them were Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Rufus, and Ticky Holgado as well as Marie-Laure Dougnac who has appeared in Foutaises as she played the butcher’s vegetarian daughter that Louison would fall for. Other people who would be part of the Jeunet-Caro team would include cinematographer Darius Khondji, editor Herve Schneid, sound editor Gerard Hardy, set decorator Aline Bonetto, and visual effects designer Pitof.

Collaborating with co-writer Gilles Adrien, Jeunet and Caro wanted to create a dystopian film that had a sense of humor as they cited the influence of filmmaker Terry Gilliam for his quirky sensibility dating back to his work as an animator for the British comedy troupe Monty Python. Notably in blending black comedy with something as serious as cannibalism as it would also feature a subplot involving an underground army of vegetarians. Plus, it would feature all sorts of quirky humor involving attempts to kill Louison who is oblivious to what is happening as he is also a vegetarian. What makes it more complicated is that Louison isn’t someone who can be easily rid off as he can fend for himself.

With Caro focusing on many of the set designs and visual motifs of the film that would include Khondji’s hypnotic color schemes in his photography. Jeunet would be the one who would help set up a frame and see what kind of camera shots would be used to create that scene. It would be something unique to the Jeunet-Caro collaboration as well as in the way they would reinvent the fantasy genre that was becoming more about big set pieces and extravagance rather than a compelling story. With only a small budget of 3.8 million euros, the duo were able to create something magical with the limitations they had.

The film premiered in France in April of 1991 where it was a major hit with critics and audiences where it won four Cesar Awards for its editing, production design, screenplay, and film work as well as a European film award for its set design. The film got lots of attention from the international film scene as well as a rave review from New York Times critic Janet Malin who saw the film at the 1991 New York Film Festival as it got a small U.S. release a year later. For the duo of Jeunet and Caro, the duo had finally arrived to the world of international cinema.

The City of Lost Children

The success of Delicatessen gave the duo of Jeunet and Caro the chance to make a follow-up that would exceed their vision yet it would take years before the project finally came into fruition. Entitled La Cite des enfants perdus (The City of Lost Children), the film would be another dystopian-like feature set in the future where babies are being kidnapped so that a mad scientist can take their dreams in hopes to gain immortality and not age. With Gilles Adrien co-writing the screenplay, the film would be a much grander story than their predecessor in terms of set pieces and themes that explored the world of innocence and terror.

Retaining many of collaborators for the film as well as gaining the services of famed fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier for the costumes and renowned music composer Angelo Badalamenti to do the music. Jeunet and Caro also brought in several of their group of regular actors in Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Rufus, and Ticky Holgado to appear in supporting roles. With a cast that would include the famed Jean-Louis Trintignant in a voice role as a talking brain, the leads would be in the form of child actress Judith Vittet as young girl Miette, Chilean cult actor Daniel Emilfork as the antagonist Krank, and American actor Ron Perlman as the childlike strongman known as One.

Since the film is about a strongman and a young girl trying to retrieve the former’s baby brother that will lead them to a strange, remote island in the middle of the ocean. While Perlman didn’t speak much French and admitted that it was terrible, Jeunet and Caro chose to give him less lines in order to have him express his presence more as this heroic figure. Notably as Jeunet wanted to focus on directing the actors while Caro emphasized on the set designs as it would be just as elaborate as anything they had done previously. Particularly with the setting in the mysterious island as well as scenes shot underwater that would involve a mysterious character who had ties to this mysterious island.

The film would also utilize lots of strange visual quirks in order to present this world that is clearly unlike any form of reality. Notably through Pitof’s visual effects that involved fleas injecting poison into its enemies and other ideas through the very stylized photography of Darius Khondji. It would be the film that would express the highlight of the Jeuent-Caro collaboration as well as raise their profile as one of Europe’s rising talents.

The film made its premiere as the opening film at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival where it was well-received by critics and audiences. The film would prove to a major hit in Europe as well an art house hit in the U.S. The back-to-back success for Jeunet and Caro would get the attention of many in the international film scene as the duo were now hot among the world of film buffs and film critics.

Alien: Resurrection

The success of La Cite des enfants perdus gave the duo of Jeunet and Caro the attention of Hollywood as they wanted them to helm something for the studios. Though Jeunet was working on a script that would eventually become Amelie, he took the chance to work with a major film studio on something that would be big and raise his profile. It would be 20th Century Fox that finally approached him to helm the fourth film of the Alien franchise. Though it was offered previously to Danny Boyle and Bryan Singer, both declined the project as Jeunet was the next filmmaker offered as he decided to take part in the film despite speaking very little English and not having final cut privileges.

With a screenplay that was written by up-and-coming writer Joss Whedon who had been a TV writer for shows like Roseanne and an early version of Parenthood as well as being a script doctor for films like Speed, The Getaway, and Waterworld while co-writing Toy Story. The film would feature the franchise’s star Sigourney Weaver who was given a co-producer’s credit as she would reprise her role as Ellen Ripley. While Jeunet did have reservations about helming the fourth film of the franchise given the reception over its third film and its troubled production. It would be Weaver that would give Jeunet the chance to finally display some of his ideas into the project.

While Jeunet was able to get a few of his collaborators like cinematographer Darius Khondji, editor Herve Schneid, and visual effects supervisor Pitof as well as Marc Caro providing some sketches of the costumes the characters would wear. Jeunet was also able to get Dominique Pinon in a small role as the paraplegic mechanic Vreiss and Ron Perlman as the wise-cracking mercenary Johner. With a cast that would include Winona Ryder, Raymond Cruz, Michael Wincott, Dan Hedaya, J.E. Freeman, and Brad Dourif. Jeunet finally got a chance to helm his first solo feature in the form of a big-budget sci-fi adventure film with a $75 million budget.

Not surprisingly, the production was troubled as Jeunet had a hard time finding a studio space to helm the film as many other big-budgeted productions were taking place at the time. Notably as it would require a scene where characters had to swim underwater to escape one of the aliens as it was shot first though it was difficult due to a drowning experience Winona Ryder had at age 12. Though it was one hurdle that Jeunet was able to get through, he also wanted to take a chance to really flesh out the Ripley character more as she had been revived with alien blood as he gave Weaver to do things that she hadn’t done in the previous films. While changes were made to Whedon’s script much to his dismay, Jeunet was able to get the film finished on time and on budget.

The film premiered in late November of 1997 where it did well in the box office though reception from critics and fans of the franchise were mixed. Still, it did help Jeunet with his profile as it also helped him financially despite some of the hurdles he went through into making the film. The film would also mark the end of Jeunet’s collaboration with Marc Caro as the two went their separate ways as the latter would forge his own career into filmmaking that finally saw him helm his first solo feature in 2008’s Dante 01 that would co-star Dominique Pinon.


After the release of Alien: Resurrection, Jeunet took a break from filmmaking as he devoted some of his time to work on the script for what would become his greatest triumph. Entitled Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain (The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain), the film would be a completely different project from everything else that Jeunet had done in his career. Straying away from some of the dystopian elements of his earlier feature films as well as its dark humor. Jeunet decided to go into full-on quirkiness for this project about a shy, young waitress who secretly decides to change the lives of the people around her for the better while trying to find love.

Co-writing the screenplay with Guillaume Laurant, Jeunet wanted to create something that had the quirky elements of a love story but also make it a love letter to the city of Paris itself. While it would be set during the late 1990s in the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. It would be a story that revolved around this young woman’s desire to make the lives of people better including her father who still grieved over his wife who had died when Amelie was a child. Jeunet was influenced by Wong Kar-Wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express where its second half featured a quirky love story involving a cop and a woman who worked at a eatery he always went to. What intrigued Jeunet was the eccentricities in the Faye character that had been played by Chinese singer Faye Wong as she was someone who didn’t fit in the mold of most female protagonists in romantic films.

While Jeunet wanted British actress Emily Watson to play the lead while he had written the role for her in mind. Watson was unable to do the film due to commitments to be in Robert Altman’s 2001 film Gosford Park as well as the fact that her French wasn’t very good either. Jeunet would eventually do a re-write with Laurant where he would finally find the person to play Amelie in a up-and-coming French actress Audrey Tautou. Tautou was a TV actress who had just made her film breakthrough in 1999’s Venus Beauty Institute where she won a Cesar award for Most Promising Actress. After meeting Tautou, Jeunet found the person he was looking for as production was underway.

While retaining most of his company of actors in Dominique Pinon, Rufus, and Ticky Holgado that would be expanded to include Urbain Cancelier, Yolande Moreau, and famed character actor Andre Dussollier as the film’s narrator. Jeunet also made a few changes in his collaborators due to the departures of Marc Caro, Pitof, and Darius Khondji. While regaining Bruno Delbonnel as his cinematographer as well as getting set decorator Aline Bonetto to the production designer. Jeunet was ready to helm what would a film that would be like no other. With Delbonnel creating a vibrant colored scheme that deviated from other photography styles that been known to give Paris a postcard look. The look gave Jeunet something that would stand out as it emphasized largely on whimsy with Delbonnel providing something that was drenched in sepia-colors to flesh out the film’s quirky look.

It wasn’t just the chance to shoot on location in various places in Paris where Jeunet had this sense of freedom without having to build lots of extravagant set pieces for the film. Notably as it would play to the many adventures that Amelie would take as she is this cafĂ© with a strange sense of humor but also someone who longs to connect. Even as Amelie would be intrigued by someone who is just as quirky and complicated as she is where it would add to her sense of longing. While Jeunet knew that he had to play to certain schematics for Amelie to be with this person, he also knew what not to do in order to make Amelie’s desire to connect be more surprising.

One aspect of the film that would Jeunet would be Yann Tiersen’s music. Wanting to convey the world that is Paris, Tiersen would create a score that emphasized on the accordion that is typical of Parisian life. Yet, Tiersen created score pieces that played to the many emotions that Amelie goes through whether it’s upbeat or down tempo as he would also add little instrumental touches in the background. It would be a key element that would ensure not just the success of the film but also an ingredient that Jeunet needed to make the film standout from his other features and everything else that was happening in cinema.

Though the film was slated to premiere at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, the festival’s organizer Gilles Jacob decided not to have the film played though it was presented in an unfinished form. Yet, Jeunet was able to get the film to come out a few weeks before the festival where it was a major hit in France. The film would make an appearance at the Toronto Film Festival in September of that year where it won the People’s Choice Award as it led to a limited release in the U.S. later in the year where it was a big art house hit. The film would be a favorite among critics and received five Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film as well as nominations for its art direction, music, sound, and screenplay. For Jeunet, it would a highlight of his career as well as elevating him to one of the great filmmakers working at the time.

A Very Long Engagement

With the new clout that he received for Amelie, there was an added sense of pressure into what Jeunet should do next. Notably as it would be a major challenge to top something as revered as Amelie. Yet, Jeunet eventually found his next project in the form of an adaptation of Sebastien Japrisot’s 1991 novel Un long dimanche de fiancailles (A Very Long Engagement). The story is a romantic epic about a young woman who is desperate to find out what happened to her lover who had been killed or missing in action during the Battle of the Somme in World War I as she goes on a quest to find out what happened. The story was a much more multi-layered film as it revolved around government corruption and what happened to those men lost in that battle.

While the story would be a major departure of sorts for Jeunet, its love story between the character of Mathilde Donnay and Manech Langonnet still appealed to the director as it would provide motivation for Mathilde’s journey. Notably as it would allow Mathilde to discover what Manech was going through in war as well as the horrors that he was facing that led to the death of some men in his platoon who were accused of cowardice. Writing the script with Guillaume Laurant, the story would be something that would take Jeunet to areas that he hadn’t explored while wanting to retain some of his themes into this story.

With Audrey Tautou reuniting with Jeunet to play the lead role of Mathilde Donnay. The cast would be filled with many of Jeunet’s regulars like Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Rufus, Urbain Cancelier, Andre Dussollier, and Ticky Holgado in one of his final film roles as well as a very diverse group of actors. Notably as it would feature up-and-comers such as Gaspard Ulliel as Manech, Julie Depardieu as a girlfriend of one of the deceased soldiers, and Marion Cotillard as a serial killer seeking vengeance over the death of those who were responsible for her lover’s death. Also cast for the film were a group of veterans like Tcheky Kayro, Denis Lavant, Chantal Neuwirth, Albert Dupontel, and American actress Jodie Foster as the widow of a soldier who died in the war.

With many of Jeunet’s collaborators taking part of the project while Jeunet also regained the services of music composer Angelo Badalamenti. Jeunet and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel wanted to go for something that had many elements of the romantic epics but didn’t want to rely too much on long, sweeping visions. Notably as they maintained an air of intimacy into the film’s look while playing to some of the grittiness that occurred in the battle scenes with the help of visual effects supervisor Alain Carsoux. Jeunet also wanted the film to have an air of intrigue as it revolved in the third act that relates to the mystery of what happened to Manech where it included a key meeting between Mathilde and the character of Tina that Cotillard played that would revel in a new maturity into what Jeunet would do as a filmmaker.

With an 18-month production schedule that had a $57 million budget that was co-produced by French and American studios. The project was a mass undertaking though a bit small in comparison to Jeunet’s experience with Alien: Resurrection. While there had been some legal issues over what studio would get a bigger share of the profits. The film was finally released in November of 2004 worldwide where it was well-received critically while doing very well in the box office despite its limited run in the U.S. Not surprisingly, the film didn’t do well as Amelie yet still managed to maintain Jeunet’s reputation as a filmmaker while upping Audrey Tautou’s status as a major film star. The film received two Oscar nominations for its cinematography and art direction while gaining several Cesar award nominations winning five including a Best Supporting Actress prize to Marion Cotillard.


With several successful films under his belt and the adulation of critics and film buffs, Jeunet was given offers to helm several high-profile projects. Among them was helming the fifth Harry Potter film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix yet Jeunet chose not to do it. Another project that Jeunet was approached to do and seriously considered was in an adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. With Guillaume Laurant helping him to write the screenplay, the project was supposed to start shooting in mid-2006. Yet, problems emerged over the budget forcing Jeunet to drop out of the project as it would be eventually helmed by Ang Lee who finally unveiled the film in 2012. Jeunet would spend the next few years working with Laurant on a very different project that would return Jeunet back to the world of comedy.

Entitled MicMacs a tire-larigot (Micmacs Non-stop shenanigans), the film would be a mixture of genres that explored the world of arms trading and the effects it would have on individuals whose lives had been destroyed by the sales of arms. While it mostly a comedy, Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant decided that the film would be a satire of sorts on the world of arms trading as it would be led by a man who had lost everything because of arms dealing. In turn, he teams up with an eccentric group of oddballs in a revenge scheme to take down two of France’s top arms dealers by pitting them against each other.

While Jeunet was able to get a few of his regular group of actors in Dominique Pinon, Urbain Cancelier, Yolande Moreau, and Andre Dussollier to appear in the film. Jeunet originally wanted Jamel Debbouze for the lead role of Bazil but various issues prevented Debbouze to appear in the film as famed comedy actor Dany Boon eventually got the lead role. Changes were also made for Jeunet’s group of collaborators as Bruno Delbonnel was unable to take part as he was already in demand as a cinematographer. Jeunet was able to get Japanese cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata to fill in while it would become the first film in which Jeunet decided not to use any type of visual effects for the film.

While Nagata’s photography style definitely differed from everything else Jeunet had worked with. He did maintain something similar to some of the scenes shot inside and at night while Aline Bonetto’s set design of the secret base that Bazil and his friends lived in added that same kind of quirky sensibility that Jeunet was looking for. The film also Jeunet going into some very dark territory as it did dwell into the world of arms dealing as its two antagonists in these arm dealers are competing to sell arms to an African dictator. Yet, they’re unaware of the damage they had done to Bazil who lost his father from a landmine made by one arms dealer and the stray bullet in his head made by the other that had him lose everything he once had. It would become a key motivation to take vengeance in not just for himself but also for the human race.

While Jeunet was taking on something that was very heavy, he and co-writer Laurant decided to use humor as a way to fight off against these two arm dealers by having Bazil and his gang of oddballs do things that proved to be silly yet effective. The film would also show Jeunet expanding his influence by referencing Howard Hawks’ film The Big Sleep while also acknowledging himself as he would have Pinon replay his Louison character from Delicatessen who makes a cameo appearance though the film also was supposed to have a cameo from Audrey Tautou as Amelie though Tautou was unable to take part in the film due to scheduling issues. The result would show not just a newfound maturity in Jeunet’s work but also a film that would also reveal that he is unafraid to take on some major themes.

The film made its premiere at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival where it got a wonderful reception as it was later released in France a month later and got a U.S. release in the next year. While it only did modestly well in the box office, the film still did well with critics who were amazed over Jeunet’s vision as well as tackling some heavy themes in a humorous way. For Jeunet, the film was able to prove that he is still one of cinema’s great filmmakers.

The Young and Prodigious Spivet

Jeunet’s next film will be in an adaptation of Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet about a 12-year old mapmaking enthusiast who goes on an adventure by traveling cross-country all over the U.S. to accept the Baird Award in Washington D.C. The film is set to be Jeunet’s second English-language feature as it will include a very diverse cast of actors including Helena Bohnam Carter, Callum Keith Rennie, Judy Davis, Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon, and newcomer Kyle Catlett in the role of T.S. Spivet. While the film would be another departure of sorts for Jeunet, it is slated for a November 2013 release as it might be a more accessible feature. Whatever the outcome it will be, it certainly will be something that his fans and maybe audiences who aren’t familiar with his work might enjoy.

Additional Works

Throughout Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s career, the director also took the time to direct commercials and music videos during the 1980s. Some of which with Marc Caro as it included videos for French-based artists like Julien Clerc, Claudia Phillips, Jean-Michel Jarre, Lio, and Etienne Daho. The videos for Julien Clerc reveal many of Jeunet and Caro’s unique visual style in these two videos for the songs La Fille aux Bas Nylons and Helene that reveal a playfulness in those songs.

For Etienne Daho’s Tombe pour la France, Jeunet and Caro go for the same approach in the video for that song as well as some inspired animated sequences.

Jean-Michel Jarre’s Zoolook is easily the highlight of Jeunet’s work as a music video director with its mix of stop-motion animation, live-action, and all sorts of strange images as the video itself is really a delight to watch.

Lio’s L’autre joue show a very different side to Jeunet’s directing style as he goes for simplicity though it’s shot largely on a crane shot looking down through some gorgeous black-and-white images since the song is a wonderful ballad.

Finally, there’s the two videos for Claudia Phillips in Souvenez-vous de Nous and Cache ta Joie. Both of which reveal the pop singer’s humorous ideas towards her song as the former shows Phillips wearing various costumes while being on top of other people in a very whimsical video. The latter is very creative video with dancing dogs, various forms of animation, elastic models, and all sorts of strange backgrounds while Phillips sings.

In 2009, Jeunet was asked to film a commercial for Chanel No. 5 as it featured Audrey Tautou in the commercial. Filled with Jeunet’s unique visual style, it is truly a gorgeous commercial about a woman traveling on a train from Paris to Istanbul as she meets a man entranced by her beauty.

With six feature films and one more set to come out, Jean-Pierre Jeunet has already amassed a great collection of films as he is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. He is a filmmaker who puts a lot of heart into the characters and visual ideas that he creates that allow the audiences to fall in love with them. He’s also someone not afraid to take on heavy material but also find something in it for the audience to be enthralled by whether it’s through humor or romance. After all, if there’s a filmmaker who will find a way to put a smile into someone’s face through his films. Jean-Pierre Jeunet is the man to do that and more.

© thevoid99 2013


Unknown said...

I said it before and I'll say it again. No one writes detailed articles as well was you do. I had no idea that he was picked to do "Life of Pi" or "Harry Potter" would have loved to see his takes on those movies.

Chris said...

Great post, nice to know more about this director.
I didn't know Chungking Express influenced Amelie, and story was written with Emily Watson in mind. Audrey Tautou was a excellent choice. I'm fairly convinced that Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique was also an influence, in terms of the visuals.

Chip Lary said...

Thanks for the comprehensive look at Jeunet's career. Without specifically trying to see "Jeunet films" I've actually seen all but Mic Macs at one time or another. I hadn't realized that was the only one left. I'm going to add it to my Netflix queue.

thevoid99 said...

@TheVern-Thank you. I always plan out what I'm going to do though some of it is improvised. I try to put in as much information as I can when it comes to a filmmaker.

@Chris-I read about at the Wiki page on the film. I'm with you on the Veronique influence as I think it was an influence on the visuals.

@Chip-Micmacs is definitely one of Jeunet's best films and I highly recommend it. I'm glad I can help you complete the Jeunet filmography.