Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet: “People need positive stories”

Jean-Pierre Jeunet says we need uplifting films – especially after the terrorist attacks on his city

Scenes of terror have tarnished the picture postcard image of Paris but the city will always be the epicentre of romance, with its cobbled streets lined with landmarks and its adorably, aloofly, quirkily French residents. It is difficult to think of Paris without memories merging with scenes and the soundtrack from Amélie, which encapsulates better than any other film the charm and spirit of the place and its people.

The titular heroine’s search for love and meaning in Montmartre made the world fall for her and the city as viewed through her eyes. Amélie, released in 2001, is one of the UK’s highest-grossing foreign language films. But 15 years later, does its director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (pictured below) think he could make the film today given the tragic events the city has faced?

“This period is more cynical, especially in France,” says Jeunet from his Parisian office. “Fifteen years ago I showed the film in Toronto and the day after the screening it was 9/11. I was stunned like everybody, and I thought – Amélie is finished in the USA. But it was the opposite. People need positive stories, they need something with joy, something light.

“Just two days ago it was screening in a theatre in Paris packed full of young people. Everybody had seen the film before – only two people hadn’t – but when you have something positive in a story, it’s always a success because it’s not easy to write a positive story without it being sugary like stupid American films.”

Amélie was a hit in America but Jeunet’s relationship with Hollywood has been fraught to say the least. After his films Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children were hits in France in the 1990s, Jeunet was given the reins of his first Hollywood blockbuster, the little-loved Alien: Resurrection. His 2013 film, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, had everything going for it. It was an adaptation of a popular novel and a perfect tonal match for Jeunet, however disagreements with movie mogul Harvey Weinstein meant the film was given lacklustre distribution.

“If you want your film seen in the USA you have to sell it, and it was the case with T.S. Spivet,” Jeunet says. “They fucked the final cut, they fucked their respect for you. It is like they are a gallery owner saying to the painter – we are going to change the green because American people don’t like green.”

Jeunet’s battle with the American studio system reflects a theme that runs through all of his work. “In all my films somewhere is the same subject, the story of Tom Thumb, the little kid fighting against the monster,” Jeunet explains. “I repeat the same story in all my films because it’s a beautiful story – weak people fighting against the monster. Of course, they win because they have imagination. It’s a little bit the story of my life.”

That narrative would have reached its peak had Jeunet’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi been made. Jeunet had written a script and was set to direct until technology restraints and budget concerns sank the ship. “It was just a question of money,” Jeunet says. “They didn’t want to go over $60m and [our budget] was $85m. Yann Martel loved our adaptation. It wasn’t a copy and paste of the book,” he adds, referring to the film eventually made by Ang Lee. Ultimately, that film reportedly cost $120m to make.

As well as directing a TV pilot of a show about Casanova for Amazon, Jeunet is working on a new film he describes as being like Amélie but about “sex and sensuality”.

But, unsurprisingly, he has no plans to relocate to Hollywood. “The restaurants are much better in Montmartre,” he says.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s classic film The City of Lost Children is out on Blu-ray on March 14