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The Films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet

By Michelle Strozykowski

Jean-Pierre Jeunat with Audrey Tautou
A look at the individualistic director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and his contributions to cinema past, present and future.
  • Jeunet et Caro

Jean-Pierre Jeunet is the French director behind the wonderfully subversive films Delicatessen (1991), The City of Lost Children (1995), and Amelie (2001). His name is synonymous with that of friend and luminary Marc Caro. The two met in 1974 at an animation festival in Annency, realised they shared an artistic vision and began to collaborate. They produced a number of shorts which were well received at festivals, before moving on to full length features. Jeunet became the director of their projects, but his friend Caro remained involved in many different ways. Caro is a talented graphic designer, composer, illustrator, comic book artist and draughtsman. His flair and expertise is put to good use in Jeunet's films; designing posters, storyboarding, creating costumes and masks etc. Jeunet's aptitude as a director comes from his personal drives and desire to achieve films that are different from the norm. He is completely self taught, and made his first few shorts whilst still holding down a 'proper job' as a postman.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet was born in 1953 in Roannes, France. According to his amusingly written bio from his official website, he started making films at the age of 9, inventing his own sets for puppets which he lit with torches. He moved on to experimenting with cine-cameras in his teenage years before meeting Marc Caro and launching into making short films and animations. His first real solo success was with the short film Foutaises (1989), which picked up several awards. Foutaises was known in Britain and America as Things I Like, Things I Don't Like, and clearly shows where certain scenes in Amelie gestated. Foutaises was also the first film to unite Jeunet with the actor who was to become his long time collaborator Dominique Pinon. Pinon has featured in every subsequent Jeunet feature film since.

The success and exposure afforded by Foutaises put Jeunet and Caro in a financial position where work could begin on their first feature film. What they created was the stunning post apocalyptic satire Delicatessen, a story that segues between nightmare and fairytale as it follows the residents of an apartment block above a butcher's shop. With animal meat in short supply the menacing butcher has begun to look elsewhere for fresh stock. This leads his sweet, lovelorn daughter to alert the troglodytes - a group of sewer dwelling vegetarian rebels - to his cannibalistic goings on.

Delicatessen was a refreshing mixture of dark humour, fantasy and romance, which met with considerable critical and box office success.

  • The City of Lost Children

The next film Jeunet and Caro collaborated on, The City of Lost Children, was almost four years in the making. The epic, futuristic fantasy introduced lavish sets, special effects and even more bizarre characters. The repulsive but piteous Krank is unable to dream so he embarks on a crazy plan to kidnap children in order to steal their dreams instead. Hidden away on his isolated oil rig, his plans back fire as the traumatised children all suffer nothing but nightmares.

  • Hollywood Comes Calling

The success of Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children led to Jeunet's brief sojourn in Hollywood. After it was rejected by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings), 20th Century Fox turned to Jeunet for the Joss Whedon penned fourth addendum to the Alien trilogy, Alien: Resurrection (1997). Of course, Jeunet found a role for his friend Marc Caro on the crew (as design supervisor), and employed his regular acting buddy Dominique Pinon as the character Vriess.

The film was critically panned, but the box office receipts were reasonable. Jeunet was able to return to France, perhaps not the all conquering hero but certainly enriched by his experience on foreign ground, and ready to start work again on his own idiosyncratic plans.

  • Onwards and Upwards

Back on home ground, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's next film, the quirky romantic comedy Amelie (2001), became one of the biggest ever hits in French cinema history. Audrey Tautou was catapulted to global fame playing the sweet natured girl who tries to bring happiness to the lives of all her friends. She was also responsible for launching a haircut to rival Jennifer Aniston's Friends era 'Rachel' cut.

Jeunet took his leading lady with him to his next project, A Very Long Engagement (2004). Based on Sebastien Japrisot's novel, this film also benefitted from a dash of Jeunet's visual poetics, although his oft used surreality is somewhat toned down in this World War I based tale of love and loss.

Next up for Jeunet was supposed to be an adaptation of Yann Martel's Booker-winning novel Life of Pi. Jeunet spent many months (adding up to at least 2 years!) on this project; writing a screenplay, modelling, storyboarding, finding solutions for how to film a child and a tiger lost at sea in a dinghy. But Fox studios deemed the $85 million Jeunet had calculated it would cost to be too expensive. They handed the reins over to Oscar-winner Ang Lee, and in the end the film cost $120 million. The funding contributed by Lee's home country of Taiwan obviously helped tip the scales here though.

  • Micmacs

With Life of Pi a no go, Jeunet chose to concentrate on his next idea, which was an arms trade satire. Originally known in pre production as Dodgy Dealings by the Dozen. The resulting film was released in 2009 as Micmacs. A rough translation of this French term means a scheme possibly with a guilty aim. A perfect title for a movie about a video store clerk living a life ruined by weapons of war, uniting with a bunch of oddballs to get revenge on the arms dealers responsible.

Micmacs has the typical Jeunet look of a beautiful but battered, sepia toned world. It also comfortably finds a home for the weird and wonderful characters Jeunet has made his own.

  • TS Spivet & Bigbug

The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet (2014) is a second (Alien:Resurrection being the first) English language film directed by Jeunet. Helena Bonham Carter is the big name star in this movie, but it really concerns her son TS (Kyle Catlett of The Following), who lives on a ranch in Montana with the rest of his kooky family. TS is interested in maps and science, and secretly enters and wins a prestigious award for his perpetual motion machine. This leads to him sneaking away and travelling cross country to accept the award from an institute who are fully expecting the recipient to be a man, not a ten year old boy.

Spivet was filmed in 3D, but can equally be enjoyed away from the theatre without this added feature. Currently, the film is available to watch on Amazon Prime video.

Alternate streaming service Netflix is the place to catch Jeunet's most recent film Bigbug (2022). This science fiction satire is set in 2045, a near future world where AI is in control of most human needs. The bickering extended family in Bigbug are trapped inside a house, seemingly being held there by their own robots. Is this for their own good? Maybe, because outside the house the rest of the robot world is in uprising. This seems to suggest Jeunet is pointing a scathing finger at what could happen if humans come to rely on AI too much. It is, however, all done very tongue in cheek. There's nothing overly dark or scary about the cartoonish world of Bigbug, but that does mean, sadly. it abandons Jeunet's usual steam punk aesthetic in favour of futuristic CGI visuals.

This film (Bigbug) was completed during the COVID 19 lockdown and released worldwide on Netflix in February 2022. Read on for a handy run down of Jeunet's feature filmography.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Filmography

  • Bigbug (2022)

  • The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet (2014)

  • Micmacs (2009)

  • A Very Long Engagement (2004)

  • Amelie (2001)

  • Alien: Resurrection (1997)

  • The City of Lost Children (1995)

  • Delicatessen (1991)

Image: Audrey Tautou with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet