“I hate to do some interviews by phone,” remarks the French film director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, obliged to breeze through several of them during a recent day of placing calls from New York City to help promote “Amelie,” his fourth feature, which became the toast of Paris last April and opens today at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.
An effusively playful and benevolent romantic comedy, the movie celebrates both a tenderhearted ingenue named Amelie, portrayed by 23-year-old Audrey Tautou (pronounced “tutu”), and the Parisian settings in which she dwells and works and dreams. Openly a barmaid in Montmarte, the winsome Amelie is covertly a guardian angel, endeavoring to improve the lives of several lost souls and to sabotage at least one incorrigible tyrant, a local grocer.
A Parisian transplant, Mr. Jeunet was born in Roanne in eastern France in 1953. He is the son of a lifelong telephone company employee and also went to work for the phone company after leaving school at age 17. A transfer brought him to Paris about three years later. He spent the better part of a decade refining a boyhood fascination with amateur and animated filmmaking into a professional breakthrough, achieved in the wake of a prize-winning 1985 puppet short (or “mini” in Mr. Jeunet’s parlance) titled “Pas de repos pour Billy Brakko.”
Mr. Jeunet recalls: “I began to make some film when I was 8. I remember I had a ViewMaster, do you know? I cut the frames to invite, no to invent a new story. I wanted to make movies almost before I wanted to see movies. It was pretty weird, in fact.”
His favorite childhood films were cartoons, particularly Tom and Jerry. “I have loved for a long time animation films,” he says, and that affection enhances several sequences in the predominantly live-action “Amelie.”
While holding down his day job as a new arrival in Paris, Mr. Jeunet saved to buy a movie camera as soon as possible. “I didn’t do any school, any film school, ever,” he explains. “I thought to own a camera and making pictures by hand was the way to start to be a director. It’s simple, you know. It’s easier to do animation when you don’t know anybody. You make a film in your kitchen, alone. The best advice I can say to young people is that you need to find a camera. I start with Super 8, then after a while, I buy 16 mm. I win some prizes, then did short films with live action. Little by little, I did also some video and commercials. I was thinking about a feature all the time.”
Conceptually, “Amelie” may have been the earliest of those features, but it took about 20 years to emerge from imaginative rumination. Mr. Jeunet began compiling notes informally for a gestating “Amelie” as far back as 1980. A more formal start began with World Cup soccer matches in 1988; he and screenwriting collaborator Guillaume Laurant decided to take a more systematic approach to the project while following the athletic spectacle.
All this activity predated Mr. Jeunet’s actual debut as a feature director, with a satiric comedy about postapocalyptic cannibalism titled “Delicatessen.” The release of this mordant beau geste in 1991 brought the filmmaker and his colleagues an avalanche of Cesar awards, the French version of the Oscars.
“Delicatessen” also seemed to type Mr. Jeunet as a humorist with an aptitude for horrific stylization. His next two features, the French-made “City of Lost Children” and the Hollywood-made “Alien Resurrection,” the third of the sequels to Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” reinforced this reputation. It occurred to Mr. Jeunet that a change of emphasis might be overdue.
“I suddenly realized that I had never made a positive film,” he says. “Not that I was so conscious of making only dark films. At this stage, I want to make a sweet film, one that gives people pleasure. Now I understand ‘Amelie’ as the film I want to make from a long time. But it was a long process. I had to wait for life. I did three dark movies. Now maybe I make three positive movies.”
Although the notes that became “Amelie” had been accumulating for years in notebooks and then “powerbooks,” Mr. Jeunet and Mr. Laurant could never quite settle on a central character. Then the character of Amelie emerged from the pack. “She was one small story in the center of all these stories,” the director recalls. “Then I realized, ahhh, this is the center of the film.”
The original screenplay was formulated with an English Amelie in mind because Mr. Jeunet thought he had found an ideal leading lady in Emily Watson. “After a while, she did not want to make the film for personal reasons,” he says. “She did not want to leave London for five months. So I did a casting hunt, and I met Audrey Tautou.
“I had seen her in a small role in ‘Venus Beauty Institute.’ I like very much her ears and eyes. I do some tests. This I do with everybody, even the smallest character. So we have the proof that Audrey works as a wonderful Amelie, but it wouldn’t have been so different to the story if Emily Watson had remained. I would have said she was growing up in London as a small girl.”
Mr. Jeunet remarks that he “prepares a lot” and relishes every bit of preparation. “I love so much to make, I love all part of the film,” he enthuses. “I do a storyboard always for the most visual scenes. It’s more practical to prepare before. On the set, too late, you have to run.
“I spend a lot of time to scout the location, to do the cast, the sound, the editing, everything. I put in the garbage maybe one minute of footage, no more. I hate the kind of directors they do a film three hours long and they have to cut one hour. I don’t understand, because it’s so expensive to spend money and energy. I prefer to put everything in the film.”
Soon after returning to Paris from the production of “Alien Resurrection,” Mr. Jeunet moved into the Montmarte area that proves scenically indispensable to “Amelie.” He boasts, “That’s my cafe. My sex shop. My grocery. I’m kidding but all are very close to my house. Now it’s different for the cafe. Many visitors want to see the set. The owners wanted to sell the cafe one year ago. Now they don’t want. The life is different in Montmarte since Amelie Poulan. Everything is different. I hope now American tourists will see the set, too.”
According to Mr. Jeunet, his first exposure to American studio methods was far from discouraging. “I am very proud about the film,” he says. “Even now I am meeting with bosses at Fox, and they propose me some different things. I had two big surprises in Hollywood directing ‘Alien Resurrection.’
“The first was a good surprise. I was pretty free in terms of artistic direction. The second one, the bad one: It was difficult in terms of money. It was, in fact, the exact opposite of the image Europeans have. You think, Hollywood, you have a lot of money, automatically. No, I had to cut and simplify every day. This kind of movie could be so expensive, but I had to fight to keep the quality of many details. It was a kind of pleasure even under such pressure. It is too easy sometimes. When I have a mini, I miss the pressure.”
Mr. Jeunet is loath to consider directing an American remake of “Amelie,” although the idea of an eventual copycat may be impossible to discourage. He’s more inclined to devote a project to one of the American cities he likes, notably Chicago, which he pronounces, delightfully, “Chick-ago.”
“Mr. Jeunet explains, “I went to many Chick-ago festivals, but this time, with ‘Amelie,’ I get to discover more Chick-ago. Amazing city. So nice. Like New York but with the subway outside sometime.”
He agrees that “it’s a good moment for French movies,” which began an auspicious run earlier this year when “With a Friend Like Harry” opened. He also feels little patience with admirers of the long-ago new wave, or nouvelle vague, which crested in the early 1960s.
“We have a new generation of directors,” Mr. Jeunet says, “who want to make the same quality as American movies. They hate nouvelle vague. You know, the boring movie. With a couple fighting in the kitchen. I had a tough time getting in the door with ‘Delicatessen’ 10 years ago. On the other hand, we have to keep some distance, some distinction. If we do only movies like the Americans, it won’t be good for our kind. I suppose it was another story with the nouvelle vague in the late 1950s, the early 1960s. Then it was pretty new. Now it’s years later, and the reputation is bad. I hope so. They are some crooks.”