Tag Archives: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

LIST CANDIDATE: AMELIE (2001)

Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Mathieu Kassovitz, Dominique Pinon, Rufus

PLOT: An introverted and imaginative Parisian girl devotes herself to secretly helping those around her, but is it only because she’s afraid to go after love herself?

Still from Amelie (2011)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: If Amélie makes the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies, it will thanks to the “sliding scale” rule: the better a movie is, the less weird it needs to be to qualify. While Amélie has more than its share of literally magical moments, it’s a little hard to swallow that something this universally beloved could qualify as “weird.” Describing it, fans will often resort to such “weird-lite” adjectives as “peculiar/odd/quirky.” Still, it is a much-adored movie, and it may be a worthwhile addition to the List to represent the more whimsical side of the weird.

COMMENTS: Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, the two early 1990s collaborations between Jean-Pierre Jeunet and , were spicy-sweet concoctions. Each was at heart a romantic fantasy, whether the story was about lovers rescued from cannibals or fairy tale orphans adopted by circus strong men, but a note of piquant surrealism always added bite to the sentimental overtones. When the pair split, it became clear which one was the romantic and which the weirdo; without Caro’s dark humor grounding him, Jeunet was, for better or worse, set free to soar into the stratosphere of whimsy. So comes Amélie, a life-affirming trifle which is about twice as tickly and almost as substantial as the bubbles rising off a glass of Dom Perignon. In Audrey Tautou, Jeunet found the perfect actress to embody his pixie girl who secretly enters the lives of others to bring joy or justice. Tautou has huge, liquid brown eyes that look like cross between a six-year old girl’s and a puppy dog’s. She’s incredibly beautiful, but so cute and girlish that it’s impossible to lust after her; it’s almost impossible to think of her as a sexual creature at all. And for most of the movie, she isn’t; her amiable frigidity is the source of altruistic superpowers, and overcoming her lack of sexual selfishness constitutes her heroine’s journey. Amélie’s childhood background is delivered breezily, complete with animated crocodiles and suicidal pet fish. She grows up as a sheltered introvert with an imagination that brings her skies full of bunnies and teddy bears; as a new adult, she shyly enters into a squeaky clean movie version of Paris that comes dangerously close to kitsch (you half expect to see characters walking around in those berets and striped shirts actors wore in Benny Hill sketches to indicate they were tres French). Fortunately, there are interesting, conflicted people sitting around in cafés with thorny problems for her to solve, including rejected lovers, hypochondriac tobacconists, abandoned wives, and cruel street grocers. She secretly and shyly manipulates their lives, largely as a way of avoiding her own attraction to a man whose hobby is collecting pictures discarded at photo booths; she eventually succumbs to her desires, but putters about with oblique stratagems for meeting her beau that involve various disguises, puzzles and scavenger hunts as she delays her own happiness as long as possible. It may sound insufferably cute, like a diabolical plot by some French  to turn Americans into a bunch of Francophilic wimps, but it really is legitimately charming, grandly cinematic, and amusing. Wonderfully unreal, magical diversions abound, such as glowing hearts, talking photographs, and people spontaneously dissolving into puddles. The TV channel that’s beamed into Amélie’s Montparnasse flat features nothing but the bizarrest programming: one despondent night, she watches her own funeral parade on the tube. Frothy, funny, and French almost to a fault, it’s easy to see why this uplifting movie has won so many hearts over the years; the film is harder to resist than Tautou’s smile. Still, I note that, despite its overall exceptional quality, Amélie doesn’t feature that one tour de force scene, like the bedspring symphony in Delicatessen or the incredible teardrop sequence from City of Lost Children, to hang its hat on. Jeunet without Caro, to me, is like McCartney without Lennon; and although I appreciate Amélie for what it is, part of me will always think the script would have been punchier if one of Caro’s cannibal butchers has popped up to thin out the cast.

After they ended their partnership, Jeunet went on to unprecedented success with Amélie; his film school friend Marc Caro’s directorial career did not take off so well. After 1995’s City of Lost Children, Caro did not direct a solo feature until 2008’s sci-fi flop Dante o1. He has found work as an art director, however, including designing sets for ‘s spectacular Enter the Void, the third Certified Weird project he was involved in.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…very peculiar but utterly captivating… it takes awhile to get used to the loopy sensibilities and biting, sometimes dark humor.”–Jeff Vice, Deseret News (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Nobody,” who called it “a beautiful and unique movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: FOUTAISES (1989)

AKA “Things I Like, Things I Don’t Like”; “Things I Like, Things I Hate”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Dominique Pinon

PLOT: A man lists things he likes, and things he doesn’t like, for about seven minutes.

Still from Foutaises (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s neither weird nor substantial enough, though its an eminently worthy essay in the short film format.

COMMENTS: There’s not too much to Foutaises, which is lighter and flakier than a croissant, but what is there is perfectly made. It starts as if we’re coming in in the middle of a conversation between Dominique Pinon (whose face here is at its youthful rubberiest) and an unseen interrogator; Pinon mentions that he hates butcher shops (grimacing so hard you fear he’s sprained his face in the process) but struggles to think of something he likes—until he recalls the pleasure of discovering sand from his last beach vacation trapped in the pages of a book. What follows are descriptions of common and not-so common experiences, some pleasant, some irritating, illustrated by Jeunet’s visual jokes and Pinon’s exaggerated reactions. It’s sweet that the character likes parks on holidays and Richard Widmark’s laughter, but it’s the things that annoy him that steal the show. Plucking nose hairs is an apocalyptic experience that causes buildings to collapse and Pinon’s head to shake like one of the demons in Jacob’s Ladder, but I most identify with his abhorrence of “the drop of water that splashes up.” In the course of the survey we meet a dog-drawn carriage and an animated pea, among other whimsical touches. The “foutaises” surveyed here may be trifles, but (despite the fact that one example is “something so amazing you wouldn’t dare put it in a movie”) they are the kinds of peculiarities that taken together describe the day-to-day realities of human existence more accurately than a montage of big moments would. That accessibility, its exploration of individual’s inexplicable preferences in eating and excretion and sex, is how the short snuggles up against your heart. “You like life?,” asks a character in a clip from a forgotten black and white classic Pinon sees at the cinema. “Some days I do,” is the reply that sums up Foutaises‘ fondly bemused attitude toward human existence.

This short, made one year before Delicatessen, shows Jeunet as a fully-formed, ready-for-prime-time director, confidently in control of his material. There are several trends here that will show up in future movies (not the least of which is the presence of Pinon, who is to Jeunet what  was to ). Jean-Claude Dreyfus and Marie-Laure Dougnac, who would play the butcher and his daughter in Delicatessen, show up here briefly as a husband and wife. The title sequence, with cast and crew names handwritten on cards that hover over butcher’s plates of eyeballs and chicken claws like price tags, prefigures the more elaborate antique object scrawl of the opening credits of the upcoming feature. Most significantly, Jeunet recycled the device of using lists of “things I like/things I don’t like” as a way to quickly introduce and individuate characters over a decade later for his blockbuster hit Amélie. Given Jeunet’s successful career and the fact that “Foutasises” won a César for “best short film,” the movie has been a bit scarce on video (although today even novice Googlers will have little problem locating a copy). It was released as a bonus on the English-language VHS of Delicatessen, then as an (unsubtitled) extra on the French edition of Amélie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a short with a crystallized sense of style, a clear feeling of authorship, and whose chief virtue is its energy and off kilter point of view.”–Bryce Wilson, Things That Don’t Suck

(This movie was nominated for review by “Flamingo Pudding.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

MICMACS [MICMACS À TIRE-LARIGOT] (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Jean Pierre-Jeunet

FEATURING: Dany Boon, Julie Ferrier, Dominique Pinon, André Dussollier, Nicolas Marié

PLOT: After video store clerk Bazil gets a stray bullet to the head and survives, he joins

Still from Micmacs (2009)

up with a ragtag group of trash sorters who help him conspire in a prank war against rival arms manufacturers.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Micmacs is a sweet, whimsical, and slightly surreal comedy, but it never reaches truly bizarre status.  For the most part its story and characters make sense, all set in a world not exceedingly different from our own.

COMMENTS: Once again Jean-Paul Jeunet effortlessly slips his audience into an anachronistic, slightly off-color world with wacky characters and ingenious devices, and this time he even manages to work in some anti-war (or at least, anti-weapons) statements.  As a filmmaker his strengths reside in his fantastic visual aesthetic and dedication to interesting characters, but not necessarily effective storytelling.  These characteristics apply to Micmacs, as the story is interesting but confusingly structured and underdeveloped.  It takes a while to really come together, with several curt scenes following one right after the other until the fun fully starts when Bazil joins the energetic trash heap crew.  Once everything gets going, the movie becomes a very enjoyable and unpredictable comedy complete with goofy disguises, high-concept stratagems, and plenty of breaking and entering.

The characters are fun and detailed—quirky but not in the annoying “indie-cliche” way.  They all have their own talents and interests that lend them their nicknames, and there are some imaginative schemes that involve everyone working together and putting their specific skills to use in unexpected ways.  The cast is excellent, as everyone imbues his or her personage with emotion and a good dose of silliness.  Dany Boon exudes a sort of hapless confusion coupled with a go-to spirit, while Dominique Pinon manages to always stand out in anything.  Omar Sy has some of the best comedic moments as Remington, a wannabe anthropologist obsessed with idioms.  Julie Ferrier shines as the outspoken contortionist, and both Nicolas Marié and André Dussollier put in delightfully devious turns as the villainous CEOs.

While clearly the film is quite character-heavy, the ensemble works so well together that no one is lost in the shuffle, and the focus remains on Bazil to ground the story. The script is funny and lighthearted but not fluffy, and of course the visuals are breathtaking: it’s filmed in slight sepia hues with an array of innovative gadgets and home-made clothes, and everything has a very homey, lived-in feel.  The atmosphere is slightly surrealistic and kooky and the characters are instantly lovable. Incorporating a clear penchant for high-concept stratagems and offbeat humor, Micmacs is an unavoidably cute diversion from the real world with a few narrative weaknesses.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Some of the extravagant visual eccentricity of [Jeunet’s] debut feature, ‘Delicatessen’ (still his best and strangest film), of which he was co-director, is echoed in the smoky streetscapes, weird mechanical gizmos and comic-grotesque human figures on display here.  But his pacing is more deliberate, almost classical in its precise calibration of cause and effect… the film roams and rambles and sometimes stalls, straining for a charm that should come effortlessly.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

NOTE: This review is published in a slightly different form at Film Forager.

35. DELICATESSEN (1991)

“I have a lovely memory of my producer, Claudie Ossard, who came to see us in these sewers.  She’d come in Chanel suits and high heels.  It was surreal to see her among these Troglodists dripping in oil.”–Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet

FEATURING: Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Karin Viard, Howard Vernon

PLOT:  In the near future, parts of French society have collapsed, most Parisian buildings

are burned out husks, and citizens have turned to a barter economy.  Among the many shortages experienced by city folk is a lack of fresh meat, but one butcher always seems to have enough flesh to trade for corn, or sex.  Answering an ad for a handyman, an ex-clown arrives at the bizarre boarding house run by the butcher and begins a chaste romance with his daughter—but is he there to do odd jobs, or does the butcher have something else in mind?

Still from Delicatessen (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • The first of two films co-directed by Jeunet and Caro.  The pair conceived the idea for The City of Lost Children (also on the List of the 366 best weird movies of all time) first, but it was too expensive to produce.  Delicatessen could be shot on a single sound stage, cheaply, so they produced this film first.
  • In the opening titles, Caro is credited with “direction artistique,” while Jeunet is responsible for “mise en scène.”
  • Jeunet, one of three co-writers on the film, says that the idea for the story came to him because he used to rent a room above a butcher’s shop and would be awoken by the sound of the butcher sharpening his cleaver every morning.  His fiancee would joke that the landlord was killing his tenants for meat in order to convince him to move to a new apartment.
  • Caro not only refused to participate a director’s commentary, saying that he didn’t believe in them, but also requested that footage of him not be used in the behind-the-scenes segments on the DVD.  In his commentary, Jeunet implies that Caro is too self-critical, dryly suggesting Caro thought the film a failure because a barely visible garden hose was unintentionally left in one shot.
  • Delicatessen was picked as the Best Film at the Tokyo International Film Festival.  At home in France it won four César’s, including Best First Feature, Best Screenplay, Best Production Design, and Best Editing.
  • The original trailer for the American release simply contained the entire “bed-spring symphony” scene, with the movie’s title appearing at the end.
  • At the time of release some reputable American critics reported that the film was either co-produced or “presented by”  Terry Gilliam, although Gilliam’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in the credits.  It seems likely the Monty Python alum, whose early films are tonally similar to Jeunet and Caro, played some part the American distribution.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Howard Vernon’s aquatic second floor apartment, covered in a few centimeters of algae-green water and inhabited by frogs and snails who climb over all the furniture, the record player, and even over the dozing actor.  In the corner is a giant pile of discarded escargot shells.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Wandering through Delicatessen is like taking a tour of a

Spanish trailer for Delicatessen

dilapidated French boarding house filled with insane tenants, most pleasantly eccentric, some downright creepy.  You peer inside each room and find something unique and discomfiting.  The film is filled with bizarre characters and absurd comic interludes, set in a decaying near-future universe that is artificially “off.”

COMMENTS:  Except for Marie-Laure Dougnac’s eyes, there is no blue in Delicatessen, Continue reading 35. DELICATESSEN (1991)

29. THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN [La cité des enfants perdus] (1995)

“…someone who didn’t dream but, just the same, lived very well, yet would want to see, in dreams, a greater dimension of the imagination. For us, someone who is deprived of that is condemned to die. That’s part of what we wanted to say…  If one cannot dream and imagine things, and if one is sentenced to the everyday, to reality, it’s awful.”–Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet

FEATURING: Ron Perlman, Judith Vittet, Dominique Pinon,

PLOT:  A mad genius living on an abadnoned oil rig, who is growing prematurely old because he cannot dream, abducts children from a nearby port city and tries to steal their dreams.  His minions seize the adopted little brother of One, a foreigner and former sailor who now works in a carnival as a strongman.  One teams up with a streetwise orphan girl in the nameless, magical city to track down his little brother’s location.

City of Lost Children

BACKGROUND:

  • This was the second and final collaboration between Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, after the black comedy Delicatessan (1991).  Caro focused on the art direction, and Jeunet worked with the actors.
  • Caro and Jeunet conceived the idea for the film fourteen years before it was completed.
  • This visual effects spectacular, incorporating early CGI technology, was reportedly the most expensive film yet  produced in France at that time.
  • La cité des enfants perdus was the opening film at the Cannes film festival in 1995 and was in competition for the Palme D’or (losing to ‘s Underground).

INDELIBLE IMAGEThe City of Lost Children is a film that’s built around images: a CGI flea using its proboscis to insert a hypnotic drug into a man’s head, a disembodied brain in a fish tank, and a horde of frightening Santas all compete for honors—not to mention the city itself, a tottering port made up of rambling stairs, arches, balconies and alleys, which resembles Venice re-imagined as a Victorian junkyard.  The most iconic image, however, is gaunt old Krank in his gleaming lab hooked up to his dream stealing machine, a multi-tentacled headdress stolen from the laboratory of an avant-garde Dr. Frankenstien.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The City of Lost Children takes place in a magical city that could not exist except in the imagination, in dreams. It’s a fairy tale, but from the first scene—a child’s Christmas Eve dream that turns unsettlingly weird—it’s clear that this is no standard fantasy world that sets out a few simple deviations from our own, but instead a world of childlike wonder where the imagination is unleashed without respect for the possible.

Short theatrical trailer for City of Lost Children

COMMENTS: There’s a scene early on in The City of Lost Children where a dozing Continue reading 29. THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN [La cité des enfants perdus] (1995)