With awards season gearing up, Amélie is the frontrunner for at least one Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film. Released in the United States in November, this Jean-Pierre Jeunet confection had already taken France, its native country, by storm, racking up about $40 million in box-office receipts and scoring four European Film Awards. "It's almost like Titanic in France," says director Jeunet, who was in New York last fall to promote the movie.
So what is it about this seemingly simple tale that inspires such popularity, as well as some vitriol from a rather noisy minority? The movie is about a Parisian waif (the beguilingly wide-eyed Audrey Tautou) who sets about doing good in other people's lives but is resistant (until the end) to the romantic possibilities in her own. What distinguishes Amélie is Jeunet's inventively playful treatment of the medium, and his eager embrace of new technologies to help tell a story. These qualities have been in evidence in Jeunet's other films, including Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children--both of which were co-directed by Marc Caro—and Alien Resurrection, his one foray to Hollywood. But those were nightmarishly dark movies; in Amélie, Jeunet puts his talents to the service of an upbeat, if still surreal, fable.
The film represents other firsts for Jeunet, who started his career as an animator and commercial/music video director. It was his first feature collaboration with DP Bruno Delbonnel, one of his oldest friends. "It was a riskóI was very scared the first day, and when I saw the first dailies, I was so relieved," he says. It was also his first movie shot to a large extent on location, in the Montmartre section of Paris (though interiors were shot in a Cologne, Germany studio). "I'm a control freak," says the director. "I love to play with everything—the sets, the costumes, the songs." Location shooting removes some elements from a filmmaker's control, of course, but Jeunet did his best to resist that reality. "I tried to work exactly like in a stage—in my head, I was in a stage. When I worked in a train station, for example, I said to my production designer [Aline Bonetto], `You made this set, it's amazing.' To me, it was a set."
Practicality dictated that real changes be made, however, so the locations were redressed with posters that fit the film's color scheme, and the streets were emptied out of vehicles (and, in the opinion of the movie's critics, people of color). Jeunet says one of his greatest inspirations was the work of Jacques Prevert, director of Le Jour se Leve and Les Enfants du Paradis, and longtime Montmartre resident. Classic Parisian roofscapes, stairways, cafes, street markets, and Art Nouveau stations like Gare du Nord were emphasized. "I wanted it to be like an old French black-and-white movie mixed with new technology," says the director.
"We continued the process in postproduction," he continues. "We changed the skies, we put in clouds. I wanted an explosion of color—the yellowish, Ektachrome-style look was part of my concept from the beginning." While yellow is indeed the most noticeable hue onscreen, greens and reds are also abundant. The entire film was digitally processed for control of color, and for facilitation of visual effects. Duboi, the Paris effects company that has worked on all Jeunet's movies, was responsible for Amélie's digital work. "In general, special effects are for spaceships and monsters, but this time I wanted to use effects for a new kind of narration or poetry," the filmmaker says.
Amélie has generated such attention stateside that Jeunet may be beckoned back to Hollywood, a prospect that is far from unpleasant for him. "There were two surprises in the States," he says. "The good surprise: I was pretty free in terms of artistic direction. The second one was in terms of money—they wanted to simplify everything every day." But whatever he does next, it probably won't happen soon. "I am very slow, when I make a film," says the director. "I spend a lot of time, so I have to fall in love with the project. I know the next one won't be the same miracle as Amélie—that happens one time in your life. But it won't be a flop, because people will want to see what's next."
All photos: Miramax Zoë