Jean-Pierre Jeunet is one of the most successful French directors of the modern era. His distinctive, whimsical style that can be described as a throwback to cinematic impressionism renders his oeuvre instantly recognizable. Of the several unique trademarks which characterize his films – including a focus on objects, the creation of quirky characters and the expression of a free, childlike imagination – Jeunet is especially known for his love of wide camera angles and elaborate crane movements which allow him to portray with full force, the profound inner conflicts faced by his characters.
The diverse slate of protagonists Jeunet has concocted over the course of his directorial career often seem to have one central factor in common – they are frequently depicted as orphans or individuals who have lost one of their parents. This narrative tendency was demonstrated in his feature length drama, The City of Lost Children (1995) – his second ever feature following his foray onto the directorial scene with his inaugural drama, the darkly comical and innovatively perverse crime film, Delicatessen (1991) – a wildly imaginative and piercingly illuminating sci-fi fantasy film set in a surrealist world where an eccentric, if not morally dubious scientist, kidnaps children in order to steal their dreams, an endeavour which he hopes will aid in slowly down his ageing process. For his follow-up film, Jeunet continued in this vein of the sci-fi genre in the extraterrestrially-centred horror drama, Alien Resurrection (1997), the fourth instalment in the well-known franchise, dealing with the events surrounding Ellen Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) revival two centuries after her death to continue in her battles against the alien life forms.
Four year later, a film that was to become Jeunet’s most seminal work was released: the Oscar-nominated poignantly sentimental, rêverie-like, quirkily shot romantic comedy with kaleidoscope beauty – that so wholly transcends the often mundane conventionalities of its genre – Amelie (2001). A hit both in its native France and internationally, the wildly popular drama delves into the mind of the innocent, gentle, curious namesake protagonist (played by the entrancing Audrey Tautou) residing in Paris, who decides to help those whom she encounters in her life, subsequently leading to Amelie’s discovery of the nature of love. Clearly as enamoured with Tautou as the film’s spellbound audiences, Jeunet recast the actress in his follow-up mystery romance released three years later, A Very Long Engagement. In the drama, Tautou plays the alluring, enigmatic Mathilde, a young woman on a long, desperate search for her finacé who disappeared from the trenches of France’s Somme during the First World War.
Above all, Jeunet’s films often lack a sense of realism; the vivid sense of surrealism which pervades his films is created by his extensive use of color grading and exaggerated color tones, riotously lighting up the screen in a hypnotic fireworks display of iridescence. Referring to the specific ranges and tints of colours in his films, Jeunet remarked, “I want to modify the reality, so I feel like a painter.” Although Mr. Jeunet generally tints his scenes in shades of warm colours to create a sense of the hyperreal, a sense of his evolution in regard to this aspect of his work can be found. In A Very Long Engagement, Jeunet uses a visibly cooler hue of colours to depict the violence of the traumatic battle scenes. Jeunet is also known for using special effects, notable in Amélie, to create an idealized portrayal of a romanticised France which in reality does not exist anymore using high technology to connect the present or future to the past. The auteur’s raucous 2009 crime comedy drama, Micmas, an explosively (literally) action-packed film portraying the machinations of a group of friends who concoct an elaborate plan to destroy two big weapons manufacturers. seems to exemplify this in its portrayal of the gang’s fire and explosion-leaden escapades on the backdrop of traditional French brasseries and commemorative historical monuments.
Jeunet also frequently utilizes flashbacks and dream sequences in his films in order to transcend the barriers of traditional, chronological time sequences. As with The City of Lost Children – at the time a groundbreaking work in French Cinema in that up until that point, the editing techniques and digital technology used in the dark drama were unmatched by any other French film – Jeunet’s boldly and charmingly magical action adventure drama, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, detailing the extraordinary experiences of a precocious ten year-old scientist (played by the charismatic Kyle Catlett) who flees from his family’s ranch in Montana to embark on a cross country train journey in order to receive an award at the Smithsonian Institute, also offers an atypical time sequence in its interspersion of numerous flashbacks throughout the narrative, affording audiences a richer understanding of the gifted protagonist’s childhood, prior to his departure.
Jeunet, uncharacteristically, seems to reign in his stylistic predilection for unalloyed, chimerical visuals in this film. The historical drama portrays the dramatics and escapades of the young Casanova’s life, albeit dangerously debaucherous and political-charged, with a staunch realism that seemingly rejects the flagrant whimsicality of his previous works. Assumedly, the auteur lessened the intensity of his signature style in order to anchor the narrative in an authenticity so that a necessary historical realism is able to shine through, as opposed to an over-the-top, cringeworthy caricature of the widely recognised historical figure’s remarkable life experiences. Nonetheless, Jeunet is not one to allow his unique artistic voice to be so wholly subverted: in the richly intricate costume design and stunningly picturesque scenery of the drama, the auteur’s penchant for unalloyed, perfectly calibrated stylistic indulgence gushes through. Instead of his typical features of quirky characters, atypical chronology and dream-like sequences, Jeunet makes the most of opulently glamorous costumes and vividly details settings in order to imbue the film with the visceral palpability pervasive in his oeuvre, while still anchoring the narrative in the essence of the French culture of that era.
It is rumoured that the helmer’s next project is an animation short curiously entitled Two Snails Set Off, a film for which cinema audiences and the festival circuit alike are giddy in anticipation. If Jeunet’s four decade-long directorial catalog is anything to go by, it is certain that not only will the project embody his trademark style – deftly balancing dark humour with a playful, whimsically childlike quality – but it will also blast onto the screen with the utterly unexpected.