Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a rarity; a foreign-language filmmaker who has time and time again managed to make films which are successful in the mainstream international market. Always audience pleasers, his films tread the line between arthouse and Hollywood. His quirky, instantly-recognisable style is warm, inviting and usually full of heart. His blissfully upbeat colour palette and his obvious love for his characters usually make for thoroughly enjoyable films. He is well known for his long-standing collaborations with cast and crew members, most notably he made a superstar of Audrey Tautou, with whom he has worked on two films and most recently an ad for Chanel. To date he has made six feature films, all of which have been very different yet most definitely consistent with his trademark visual style.
His latest film, Micmacs, boasts the warmth and romance of Amelie, the mean streak of Delicatessen and a new element which hasn't surfaced in his work before: a political agenda. The film begins with our hero Bazil as a child finding out his father has been killed in action as a soldier. He sees a logo for a weapons manufacturer which stays with him as he grows up in a miserably lonely existence. Later in his life he works in a video shop and is accidentally shot in the head in a freak accident. He survives but is told that the bullet is still in his brain and may kill him at any moment. When he finds the bullet shell he sees the logo of another weapons manufacturer. His interest is sparked when he visits the offices of these companies which happen to be directly across the road from each other. With nothing to lose, Bazil and his motley crew of friends who live together in a junkyard team up to pit the companies against each other and ultimately destroy them both through an outrageously complex but very fun plot. The cast is led by a fantastic comic turn by French comedy superstar Dany Boon, who won the role after the original actor, Jamel Debbouze dropped out. It is difficult to imagine that this part wasn't written specifically for Boon's particular brand of comedy as he embodies the physicality of the role so completely.
When Totally Dublin caught up with Jean-Pierre Jeunet last week we asked him where this strange blend of characters and themes had come from. "I wanted for a long time to work on three different aspects that I like: revenge, the weapons industry and the idea of a group of strange, crazy but smart people living together. I wanted to do something about the weapons industry for a long time. I have actually visited a weapons plant and it was kind of shocking to hear the guy talking about the weapons as if he was talking about chocolate!" Although Micmacs never gets bogged down with weighty political agendas, it certainly makes a point about how ludicrously acceptable it is to allow guns to infiltrate our world. By focussing on the simple and innocent motivations of the characters, Jeunet's films creates a sharp contrast between the world of the weapons executives and the "micmacs" who only seek to enjoy the simple pleasures of life and to indulge in the odd bit of mischief.
One of the most impressive aspects of Micmacs is its beautiful cinematography. In keeping with Jeunet's famous visual style, this film has a vivid colour scheme and bustling art direction. The heightened reality of the world he creates allows the viewer to suspend disbelief when the story goes completely wild. Jeunet has developed a unique style in his work which is recognisable to audiences. He also has the ability to merge simple human stories with complex high concept scenarios. He discussed the style of Micmacs and how it is affected by his background in animation "Actually, Micmacs is kind of a cartoon! I do not show things as they are. To me it is not interesting to show reality as it is. It is the same regarding artists. I am more interested with artists who have something to say, who have their own vision of the world. Because if it is just to see reality, I prefer watching a documentary." With this comment in mind it is interesting to cast an eye back to his earlier films, all of which are set within a world that is not quite our own, a stylised version of the reality in which these stories take place. Whether it's the filthy mayhem of Delicatessen or the golden glow of Amelie's Paris or the lush, romantic landscape of A Very Long Engagement, it is very clear that Jeunet has little interest in kitchen sink drama, but rather the world as it is seen by his array of hyper-real characters.
With Micmacs he takes this one step further by becoming self-referential. Throughout the film, there are scattered shots of huge billboards carrying posters for Micmacs, and, even more cunningly, each poster depicts an image from the scene in which it features. When asked about his unusual placement of Micmacs movie posters at certain points within the film itself, he explained that he did it simply "for fun! I allowed myself to do everything in that movie. There were no limits". Jarring, but charmingly idiosyncratic, this device is typical of Jeunet's wicked sense of fun and the overall tone of cinematic reference throughout.
His international success has afforded him a world of opportunity but he has notably turned his back on Hollywood, only having been seduced by it once when he was asked to direct Alien Resurrection. However, this was not generally considered a commercial or artistic triumph and since then he has remained in France, making the films he wants to make, in the way he wants to make them. Despite having considered directing a Harry Potter film and the big-screen adaptation of Yann Martel's Life of Pi, he understands where his comfort zone is and the benefits of remaining true to himself and sticking to his territory. "Investors know my movies will be made in France but be seen abroad as well. So it is obviously easier to get financing. But this is why I go abroad as well to do the promotion of my movies. It is nice to know we are not doing films only for France." Indeed, the success both critically and financially of his smash-hit Amelie was unprecedented and it has probably done more for the mass-consumption of foreign-language films than any other. Which is, perhaps, why he claims of all his characters, Amelie Poulain is his favourite. "It was something personal and it became a worldwide success. Amelie is me. It was the result of 25 years of notes and ideas so there is necessarily a lot of me in that movie." I don't know many other directors who would compare themselves to an imaginative pixie-like young woman in her twenties but there you have it!
A true auteur, he writes and directs his own films with the exception Alien Resurrection which was written by television's most ingenious writer Joss Whedon. When asked what it was like to direct another writer's work, he said: "Peaceful. Obviously I was less invested because I was only responsible for the technical part. When you get criticism it is more about the story, so there was no risk at all. When the movie is out, if you get criticism about the story you can even agree with it because it was not you who wrote it". As a filmmaker with genuine originality, it tickles one's curiousity to find out what other filmmakers impress him. "I am interested in film directors who have something to say, like Tim Burton, the Coen Brothers, Kubrick. I like those who have a proper style, and their own look on the world."
With his latest release, Jeunet further reinforces his presence in the world of the great directors. Admirably evolving from his earlier work, yet holding on to the charm that he became famous for, this ability has allowed Jean-Pierre Jeunet to earn and keep his household name status for a decade now.
Words: Tatiana Ogier and Charlene Lydon