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Jean-Pierre Jeunet Isn’t Anything Like Amélie, but He’s Trying

Jean-Pierre Jeunet excuses himself in the midst of our interview. “Give me one second,” the 70-year-old French filmmaker says over Zoom from Provence. “My dogs are knocking at the door.” It’s nighttime in France, and his pets mean the world to him, which is why he wants to make sure to let them in where it’s safe. “We have wolves,” he explains, “so it’s reassuring to have the little dogs inside.”

No one would be surprised to learn that Jeunet has a soft heart — just look at his most enduring film, “Amélie,” which was re-released in theaters in honor of Valentine’s Day. The story of a whimsical young Parisian (Audrey Tautou) who performs good deeds for others, eventually finding her own happy ending with the dashing, soulful Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), the fantastical 2001 romantic comedy opened in the U.S. not long after 9/11, its vision of an ultimately loving, magical world — Jeunet crafted a Paris of dreams — proving to be a solace for American viewers desperate to escape the terror, anger and sadness they were feeling. Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay for Guillaume Laurant and Jeunet, “Amélie” wasn’t just an arthouse hit but a sensation. 

But as you’ll see from our conversation, Jeunet doesn’t share a lot in common with his optimistic heroine. And that’s the point: The filmmaker, who had previously made “Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children” (both with co-director Marc Caro), wanted to do something hopeful, even though he’s a glass-half-empty guy himself. “It’s much easier to make something dark, something negative, something pessimistic,” he tells me. “To make something positive — with a positive ending — it’s more difficult.” 

His dogs now no longer in danger, he discusses going to the Oscars, his 9/11 memories, and how he tries to be like Amélie — even though he thinks humans are just the worst.

You’d had successful films before “Amélie,” but it resonated with audiences on a different level. Do you remember when you first realized the impact this movie was having?

It was little by little — it wasn’t one day. In fact, it started very badly, because I remember the Cannes Film Festival refused the film. I remember the moment Gilles Jacob, the boss of Cannes, was in a theater watching the movie — I could see [his] bald head, shiny under the projector, and I felt, “He doesn’t like the film.” [It’s] very funny because, a few years ago, he had to move his office, and the new street is Amélie in Paris. Kind of a punishment for him.

The film touches on luck, chance and fate. Were those themes that interested you at the time?

I couldn’t say that. But one day, I saw in the street in Paris a guy in a box, he had no legs, and I thought, “Maybe his only preoccupation is to help other people — I have a good idea for a film! Maybe not with a guy in a box, but with a girl.”

Emily Watson was originally meant to play Amélie, but when Watson was unavailable, the role ended up going to a relative newcomer: Audrey Tautou. It’s now hard to imagine anyone other than Tautou in the part.

I can imagine Emily Watson as Amélie — it would have been an older Amélie, a little bit more like Bridget Jones. But when I discovered the younger Amélie with Audrey, in 10 seconds I knew she is Amélie. She’s very funny, she’s able to be dramatic, she is able to do everything — she was the perfect actress for me, so it was very easy.

In the U.S., the film came out in November 2001 — after 9/11 — which definitely affected the experience. We had gone through something terrible, and this movie was a balm of sorts. Did you get a sense that Americans were responding to it in a specific way because of the terrorist attacks?

I had a clue because my wife is American, and she was watching a film from Cédric Klapisch — she could see some roofs of Paris [in the movie], and she told me, “American people will like it.” I was surprised: “Why? Because [of] roofs?” She said, “No, Paris roofs.” I thought, “Maybe if I show a beautiful Paris — a fake Paris without dog shit on the street, no traffic jams, beautiful posters on the walls — maybe it could be a success everywhere.”

On September 10th, we had an amazing screening at the Toronto Film Festival. Standing ovation. The day after, we had the press conference and someone told me, “There is a problem in New York.” They pushed me to [do the press conference] despite the [attacks]. Of course, the people were watching the TV screen, not me.

The day after [the press conference], I remember a kind of tension because we felt, “Maybe it’s not finished — maybe they will attack Paris.” Months later, when I [did] promotion [for the movie], I remember the smell in New York City — the smell of burned plastic. It was the Towers, of course. 

You know, a director is very selfish — I thought, “Okay, this is the end for [my movie] because there is something so much [more] important [going on].” It was exactly the opposite: People needed something light. But you cannot imagine that when you make a film, of course.

Because so many people love “Amélie,” for lots of reasons, I was curious: What was your original vision for the film? What did you hope to make?

I wanted to make something positive. I wanted to make a feel-good movie. It’s not easy to make something not too sugary — for some people, it is too sugary. But you can’t please everybody.

Like you said, some critics didn’t respond to “Amélie” — they think it’s too sentimental or too whimsical. Do you consider yourself a sentimental person?

I am very pessimistic. A pessimistic person is an optimistic person well-informed. I see the empty part of the glass of water. 

Have you always been pessimistic, or did it happen as you got older? 

Probably [as I] get older. There’s a reason I love my dogs — the more I know people, the more I love my dogs. 

Because you cast Tautou, Amélie ended up being younger than you’d originally conceived her. She’s really the ideal age to be so romantic about the world. Did you envy the character being young and still having her optimism?

I think it’s not a question of young or old. We agree human beings are the worst pieces of shit on this planet, but on the other hand, every human being has something good in the bottom of their heart. When we have an earthquake, you have everybody trying to save people. On the other hand, you have wars, the terrible things. It’s very complex, but somewhere we have something good in us.

I want to go back to the idea that the film is about fate, luck and chance. How much do you think your life has been impacted by those things?

Of course, we need some luck, but we need more to be stubborn. You have to know exactly what you want. As Ridley Scott says, “You have to be like a dog.” [Mimics a dog chomping down on a bone.] Never give up. With Marc Caro, when we started to make movies, it was just impossible to imagine something else — we had to make a movie and that’s it. It was essential, like to eat or to drink. And because so many people would like to do that, you have to be more stern than the other people.

The movie was nominated for five Oscars. It won a couple BAFTA awards, including Best Original Screenplay for you and Guillaume Laurant. What was the experience like after the awards-season rush was over? Is it deflating? Or were you ready to move on to the next thing?

We were so happy to be [at the Oscars], we didn’t care at the time [what happened]. But now, I regret [not winning] because the statue is beautiful. [Laughs] I miss it on my shelf. 

But you know the story — it was [the] year Miramax was boycotted by the Academy, so bad luck for us. Weinstein had 19 nominations [that year], he [only] got one. But on the other hand, if I think he deserved to be boycotted, it’s because he [did] something wrong, and if we would have won, it would have been not fair. But I received a letter from Steven Spielberg: “Good luck for the Oscars — you will win!” [Laughs] 

How much higher was your profile in Hollywood after “Amélie”? Was every studio in town clamoring for you to make something with them?

Before “Amélie,” I made “Alien: Resurrection” for Fox. Tom Rothman, the boss, told me, “We will be interested to produce your next movie,” so I flew from Paris to L.A. — at this time, no Skype — and had a meeting with Fox. When I entered the room, Tom Rothman [seemed] embarrassed. He told me, “You know, the marketing [people] read your script [for ‘Amélie’] and said it’s not ‘Titanic.’” When Tom Rothman saw [my] film, he was totally upset — I suppose the next day he fired everyone. [Laughs]

“Alien: Resurrection” was your only American studio film. I think a lot of your fans assumed the experience was so bad you never wanted to work in Hollywood again. 

When I made “Alien: Resurrection,” they gave me the freedom — it couldn’t happen today. For “Amélie,” total freedom. Today, I have to fight to explain what I want to do — some young producers [will say], “Oh, you have to modify that.”

I almost made “Life of Pi.” I worked three years on “Life of Pi” — 20th Century Fox loved our adaptation. But it was too expensive. I proposed to produce myself — the difference between the euro and the dollar was so big at the time, it was the same price. I said, “Wait three years and we will be able to make the tiger in CGI.” Then they hired Ang Lee, and it was double the price.

Was it difficult after “Amélie,” to think, “Maybe I’m never going to make anything that captures an audience the way that movie did”?

The film gave me the opportunity to make “A Very Long Engagement.” Because Warners had the rights, I couldn’t imagine they would give [them to] me. But because of the success of “Amélie” — thank you, Richard Fox — they gave me total freedom. When I met the boss in Los Angeles, I said, “I want to shoot in French.” “Okay.” “I want final cut.” “Okay.” It was amazing, and we made a beautiful movie.

Of course, you would like to have the same success all the time, but you know it’s once in a lifetime — you have to know that. It’s a kind of miracle. I am so happy because this is the dream for every director to make something very personal — a little movie with a lot of personal ideas, and it becomes a phenomenon. It’s more than a success. 

Amélie would now be about the age that you were when you made “Amélie.” Do you ever wonder where she would be today?

People offered us to make a sequel. We imagined she would have two babies with Mathieu Kassovitz — [he] lays down on a couch, drinking beer, watching football. Something sad and bad like this. [Laughs] I could imagine [for a sequel] another [character], she would like to be a kind of Amélie, and she tries to do the same thing, but she [messes up] everything. It could be funny to do that.

Did making an optimistic movie help change your pessimistic worldview?

I try to be like Amélie, taking some [enjoyment from] the small pleasures of life. For example, when she puts the hand in the grain — every day, I try to have the same kind of little pleasure. It seems like nothing, but it’s very important. 

In the film, we hear about different characters’ likes and dislikes. Years earlier, you had made a short, “Foutaises (Things I Like, Things I Hate),” about your own likes and dislikes. Has the list changed much over time?

No, but every day you find some other ideas, of course.

Do fans still send you photos of gnomes in different parts of the world?

No, but today I received a photograph from a butcher in India or China watching “Amélie” [at work]. Two or three years ago, they [held] a screening in Cannes on the beach for free. They warned me, “It’s a rainy day, we will have 50 people” — no, it was packed. It continues — it never stopped. At the cafe in “Amélie,” every four minutes [someone takes] a picture. 

Amélie talks about how much she loves turning around in the theater to see all the faces looking up at the screen. Are you the same way?

I did that. With my short film, I was in a film festival, and I turned my head — everyone was smiling. It was a great moment.

Was that the first time you did that?

I don’t remember. I am very good [at keeping] the good memories — I have a very bad memory, except for the good things. 

That seems like a great power to have.

Except “Amélie,” which was very easy, usually [making movies] is a nightmare. The last one, “T.S. Spivet,” was a nightmare — 10 years after, you remember just the good memories. You forget the bad things. 

It’s luck — maybe it’s me, I don’t know. I love to rewatch my own movies. Every director [says], “I never watch my own movies” — oh, I do. 

Yeah, so many artists only see the mistakes or the things they wish they could redo. How do you explain your ability to just sit back and enjoy your own work?

When I see [my] film, it’s like when you watch a film from vacation: “Oh, I remember it was good to do that.” I love so much to make — this is the most important thing for me. Even when I don’t make a film, I have here in Provence a workshop, and I make something with my hands. I don’t know to draw, I don’t know to make sculptures, but I make some animals and I make an animation short film with that. 

This is my best advice I can give to young people: Just take the pleasure to make. Don’t think about the future. Don’t think about [being] famous. Sometimes they ask me, “What do I have to do to be a director?” I say, “Do you want to be, or do you want to make?” 

Did you get the sense that “Amélie” helped increase tourism in Paris? We all wanted to see that amazing city you created.

I know there is an “Amélie” tour in Montmartre. The last time I checked the sex shop [in the film], I opened the door and asked the cashier, “I am just curious, because I’m the director of ‘Amélie,’ do you [get tourists]?” And he said, “I was here during the shooting, I don’t know you — get lost.” [Laughs]

You don’t look that different from when you made the film!

He wasn’t there — he lied!

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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