- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 2004

This weekend’s roster of holiday attractions might look a bit skimpy without the imports: “A Very Long Engagement” from France, “The Sea Inside” from Spain and “House of the Flying Daggers” from China.

Prominent directors were involved in each case, starting with Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who had an international success in 2001 with “Amelie” and had been recruited from the French avant-garde for the farewell “Alien” thriller, “Alien Resurrection.” “Engagement” is a romantic spectacle set against the backdrop of World War I, and it reunites Mr. Jeunet with many of his “Amelie” associates, including leading lady Audrey Tautou.

During a recent visit to Washington, Mr. Jeunet pointed out that the success of “Amelie” had opened many doors for him, starting with the source material of “Engagement,” a best-selling romantic-historical-epistolary novel of 1988 by the late Sebastien Japrisot. Warner had acquired the book and intended to do an English-language adaptation with Hollywood names. The project lapsed, allowing Mr. Jeunet to make a pitch after “Amelie” had given him more than enough commercial leverage to become an eligible suitor for a book he loved.

“I heard Ang Lee wanted to make it, but I’m not sure,” Mr. Jeunet recalls. “A script was written and went into the drawer. I called and said I’d like to do it, but in French. Because of ‘Amelie,’ they said, ‘Why not?’ And with Audrey Tautou as the heroine? ‘Of course.’ Final cut? ‘OK.’ I also got lucky because Jodie Foster called about working together, since she liked ‘Amelie.’ It’s amazing, but she is completely fluent in French. She has absolutely no accent. She was in Paris to dub ‘Panic Room.’ She does all her own dubbing. It was too late to consider a leading role, but she was receptive to a guest-star role. Unbilled, because we didn’t want her participation to be exaggerated. … She’s very easy to work with. A good example for everybody.”

Mr. Jeunet says he wanted to overpopulate the movie with “interesting faces.” Perhaps spoiled by Miss Foster, he was rather skeptical about the acting skills of his countrymen. Overfamiliarity may be taking a toll.

“It’s often the case in France that people act very close to what they are in real life,” he observes. “Actors in the USA can act everything. Not in France. Maybe they are too used to playing in realistic movies. Always a couple fighting in the kitchen, you know?”

But aren’t there still French-made swashbucklers? And a theatrical tradition of costume and period drama?

“Yes, but maybe that’s only to keep our culture distinct from American movies,” he says. “I cast theater people, certainly, but sometimes there are technical mistakes. … One of the actors, he is used to speaking very loud in the theater. So he overacts, all the time. I had to say, ‘Calm down, calm down. The camera is right there, very close to you.’”

• • •

The camera has acquired a flattering closeness to the Spanish film star Javier Bardem in recent years. He disguised his appearance impressively while playing a brawny bearded character in “Mondays in the Sun” (2002). In “The Sea Inside,” which opened locally yesterday, the camera draws even closer, because he portrays a quadriplegic named Ramon Sampredo, a real-life figure who waged a 30-year campaign to end his life before succumbing to fatal sips of potassium cyanide in 1998.

Mr. Bardem, another recent visitor to Washington, insisted that it was merely a technical challenge to embody an immobilized character.

“It’s funny how people, including myself, exaggerate the difficulty of this task,” he reflects. “There’s an old saying that actors are paid to wait. It’s especially true in movies. We have all this practice sitting still. You can wait hours and then be asked to resolve your scene in 30 minutes. We took a long time with makeup every day, because Ramon was a small man with a large, round face, but everything was ready when we started to shoot. I’m on a bed; we’re in a studio; there’s no improvisation. In many ways, it’s much simpler to work. There are fewer reasons to stop a scene once you start.”

Mr. Bardem found it a more liberating than confining experience to “forget about your body.” Relaxation was the key.

“You don’t have to worry about how to stand or what to do with your hands,” he says. “It’s all concentrated in the face and voice. You take your time, breathe deeply, put everything into the dialogue and facial expression. It’s a relief in a way. There’s much less to remember. I can also stand up and take a walk, if necessary. But I didn’t abuse the privilege. I limited my walks to the lunch break.”

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