Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a modern French film director best known for Amelie, City of Lost Children, and Delicatessen. He has a very distinct style characterized by heavy attention to detail along with whimsically dark cinematic landscapes. He achieves his signature look by not only having a unique vision but by working closely with his hand selected production team.
In a review of Amelie, one critic wrote, "It takes an extraordinarily talented director to navigate the lines between dark comedy, parody, whimsy and camp without getting bogged down by his own self-conscious artfulness." I think this is a perfect description of the duality of Jeunet’s work. At one moment his films seem light-hearted, funny and childlike, but they also have dark and often disturbing themes. Jeunet is a complicated individual who bases much of his work on past and personal experiences growing up in post war France, which is why his films connect so well with young and young at heart audiences. He is able to translate what we all see in the world and express it on film in a way that is both familiar and startling.
Jeunet grew up in eastern France and by the age of 17 he was making short super 8 films, while also working at a telephone company. Jeunet was born 1953 and was very young when the French New Wave was at its height. Therefore he has no particular attachment to the style and said, “forget the French New Wave! It was 50 years ago. In the end we are going to lose and forget the New Wave. Because now we have a new generation of directors, and we try to make movies for the audience, not only for ourselves like the New Wave. I don’t like New Wave. Sorry. Maybe Truffaut, and that’s it.”
Jeunet has spent his career making films that are the polar opposite of influential French directors such as Truffaut and Godard. Whereas these classic directors, widely regarded as two of the greatest filmmakers of all time, focused on the stark reality of things, Jeunet has rejected not necessarily their stories, but rather their style. All three filmmakers, Godard, Truffaut and Jeunet share many uniquely French characteristics such as the emphasis on personal relationships and the role of women in culture and society.
Jeunet is a one of the most interesting directors working today because he makes films that are commercially successful while incorporating atypical themes regarding social interactions and cultural anxieties. However, not everyone sees Jeunet in the same light. While it would be tough to argue that Jeunet isn't a visionary auteur, his work is often very misunderstood. His surrealist, post-modern style and commercial success is often viewed as Americanized, and France more than almost any other country has had a rich, distinct cinematic history that has prided itself on its uniqueness. Jeunet has bucked some of those traditions which has made him a target for criticism.
In my opinion, Jeunet has bridged the ocean and has made films that are far reaching across culture. The film City of Lost Children released in 1995 is a great example of Jeunet's ability to create widely accessible films. The film stars Ron Perlman as a street circus performer, Judith Vittet as Miette a young headstrong orphan and Daniel Emilfork as the mad scientist who steals children's dreams. The film explores the relationship humans have with machines, as well as themes surrounding the exploitation and disenfranchisement of children. Yet, the film is not all doom and gloom, in the end it has a very positive message about friendship and the strength of those who who are small.
The story surround Miette as she works for a street peddler stealing and begging on the streets with a dozen other children. After her little brother, Denree is kidnapped by Krank (Emilfork) the scientist, Miette teams up with One (Pearlman) to try and rescue him. The setting of this film, a shipping yard on the edge of a dark ocean, is perhaps the most interesting of all Jeunet's work. Out in the ocean is Krank's lab where Dunree, an infant, is found attached to a machine that siphons his dreams. It is one of the most intricate, and visually stunning landscapes in all of modern cinema.
Jeunet works in very tightly controlled environments, which is most evident in City of Lost Children. The film uses a large variety of custom made props and set pieces along with an ever-present atmospheric fog that obscures the horizon. Many of the scenes take place inside tightly cluttered spaces. All of these choices combined with the lack of color, sepia tone, and low-key lighting create the incredibly detailed world that is 100% Jeunet. He never leaves anything to chance which includes his production team who helps him bring his vision to life.
The most notable of Jeunet's frequent collaborators is Marc Caro, who has been involved in one way or another on many of Jeunet's most influential feature length films including City of Lost Children and Delicatessen. Typically filling the role of either co-director, writer or storyboard artist, Caro was heavily influenced by design and comic books and has had a huge influence on Jeunet’s style.
Jeunet is known for working with the same individuals on multiple films. Audrey Tautou, known mainly for her amazing performance in Amelie, also appeared three years later in his 2004 film, A Very Long Engagement. Dominique Pinon, who plays the identical sons of Krank in City of Lost Children, has appeared in all of Jeunet’s films. Darius Khondji was the cinematographer on Delicatessen, City of Lost Children and Jeunet’s Hollywood picture Alien Resurrection. He is also well known for the wildly popular film, Se7en. If one watches Jeunet's most popular films you will notice that many of the same people were involved in creating each of his box office hits.
Jeunet really stands tall among French filmmakers because of his signature style that transcends borders but he stands in great company. Christopher Gans 2001 film Brotherhood of the Wolf did very well in France and even enjoyed great commercial success here in the U.S becoming the second highest grossing French language film in the United States in over 20 years. Claude Sautet directed what many consider to be a modern French masterpiece, A Heart in Winter, which, despite its critical acclaim, did not fare so well at the box office. Other notable French directors working today include Mathieu Kassovitz, known for his 1995 film Hatet, and one of my favorites, Luc Besson best known for directing cult classic The Fifth Element.
Many French filmmakers have found success working on Hollywood action pictures. Kassovitz also directed the 2008 sci-fi action picture Babylon A.D, and he is not alone. Louis Leterrier is another French director who directed Hollywood action pictures including Transporter 2 (2005) and The Incredible Hulk (2008). Even Jeunet directed a Hollywood picture in the studios of Los Angeles, but what sets him apart from all other contemporary French directors is that Jeunet has a voice and a vision that can never be mistaken whether he is working on his own script or a script for a big budget movie.
Despite America’s lack of interest in foreign films, Jeunet has managed to bring attention to modern French cinema with Amelie and City of Lost Children becoming a favorite for art houses, film buffs and even finding an audience among average Americans. He is the dominant director of his generation and stands in stark contrast to many of the French directors that came before him and far outshines his contemporaries. Jeunet’s films include, Delicatessen (1991), The City of Lost Children (1995), Alien Resurrection (1997), Amelie (2001), A Very Long Engagement (2004) and Micmacs (2009).
Have you seen any of Jeunet's work? What do you think of him? Which of his films is your favorite?