Jean-Pierre Jeunet got his start in commercials and music videos, where visuals are everything. He made five films in about a decade, none of which got any distribution in the US, none of them available on DVD, and then he made this one, then City of Lost Children, then Amélie, then A Very Long Engagement. (Somewhere in there he also, unaccountably, made the execrable Alien: Resurrection. I have to assume it was because he needed the money. That’s okay; most artists, from Michelangelo to William Faulkner to Orson Welles have worked for paychecks. I know I have. The key is not to do it too often.) We saw the last three in order, then went back to pick up this one. Taking the four movies together, it’s an interesting evolution, and boy, do I hope Jeunet continues in the direction he’s been going, because it would mean we have some amazing stuff to look forward to.
The first two are startlingly original in their looks, and in many events, which are comic and complicated and often involve wonderful Rube Goldberg-type devices or concatenations of events. Both of them exist in alternate universes. They are audacious, brilliantly designed and lit and imagined … but both of them forgot two things that are really needed: a bit of a plot, and a bit of rooting interest. Delicatessen is about a post-apocalyptic world where nobody has enough food, and a butcher is providing human meat. Old idea (Sweeney Todd, Eating Raoul, The Green Butchers, and that’s just off the top of my head), but handled with wit and Jeunet’s own very weird take on things. But it really has nowhere to go, and though the final scenes are amazing, they don’t add up to anything.
Then he made Amélie, and people started to pay attention, because suddenly he got it right. He got everything right. He throttled down the weirdness and created a Paris that was cleaner and brighter and sweeter than any “real” Paris ever was, and Audrey Tautou created a character I loved instantly and will always love. It is simply one of the best films ever made, and I’m not alone in that estimate: It’s an amazing #29 on the IMDb’s Top 100. A Very Long Engagement was more of the same, not quite as good (it will be hard to match Amélie), but wonderful and touching and inventive. His next project is Life of Pi, due in 2007, and I will be at the head of the line to see it.