Jean-Pierre Jeunet: Q&A

The director of Amélie talks to the NS about his new film, Micmacs.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, born in 1953, first made his name with the black comedy Delicatessen (1991). He went on to direct Alien: Resurrection (1997) and the international hit Amélie (2001), which starred Audrey Tautou. Micmacs is released on 26 February.

Your new film, Micmacs, is about a gang of outcasts who foil some shady arms dealers. But what does the title mean?

It's slang and, depending on the context, means a mixture, a mélange, a mishmash. But it is also a little bit shady, underhand, like in the expression "c'est quoi, ce mic mac?" ("What are you scheming?"). But it's always used in a humorous way.

Did you intend to make a political statement with the film?

I wasn't out to make a political statement. I have made what I call a revenge comedy. I have always been interested in the story of Tom Thumb -- you know, the little orphan guy who takes on these monsters. And I wanted to make a film that had this band of avengers made up of the characters like the toys in Toy Story (I love Pixar), where each has a special talent, ability or eccentric little trait that is different from the rest. Like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As for the weapons dealers, that is an idea I've wanted to use for a long time and place them in this Sergio Leone revenge story that is also a comedy.

Are you opposed to the arms trade, at least in France?

I prefer not to discuss my country's politics. The arms trade idea came to me when were editing The City of Lost Children in Saint-Cloud [a suburb of Paris], next to the Dassault arms factories. We used to eat in the same restaurant as many of their engineers, and they seemed pretty straight-laced -- ties, suits, quite normal friendly guys -- but I couldn't help looking at them and thinking that they have spent their day creating and manufacturing weapons to kill and destroy as many human beings as possible.

But all the lines in the film that refer to the weapons industry are real and authentic. They [the engineers] all claim to work in the Defence Department and not, as I say, the Attack Department. That is an incredible way to keep their conscience clear as they make these instruments of death that cause so much pain, suffering, death and destruction. But even though these men, this industry, intrigued me, I wanted to make a comedy, not some serious intellectual piece. The story of this gang of scavengers against the businessmen of death appealed to me. I thought it funny.

The climax of Micmacs features your lead characters in disguise as Muslim women, veiled and wearing eyeliner. What is your view on the French government's proposals to ban the niqab and burqa?

I think it rather absurd.

Your films show a particular sympathy for outsiders, misfits and eccentrics. Do you enjoy turning underdogs into heroes?

Yes, I guess this story explores the story of David and Goliath. My hero Bazil (played by Dany Boon) drives the story, as he has been a victim of weapon manufacturers not once, but twice -- they made him an orphan and because of them he could die at any moment because of a bullet lodged in his head. It is his need for revenge that drives the film.

You are known for your loyalty to certain collaborators, particularly Dominique Pinon, who appears in all your films. What is it about Pinon in particular that keeps you casting him?

It's unthinkable to leave Pinon out of my films. With his face and his talent, it's impossible for me to do without him ­- not to mention the bond that's grown between us over time. My big game is that each time I put him in the worst possible situation imaginable. In Delicatessen, he was attached to a toilet seat for a week. In The City of Lost Children, he was tied down to a platform out at sea. Here I had him thrown into the Seine, for real. He even had to get vaccinated against rat piss! I also make him do unbelievable things: play the saw, think he's the cannonball man . . .

When I see all that he contributes to the scenes, even when he's not in the foreground, I can't get over it. He still manages to surprise me and make me laugh a lot.

The new film features elaborate acrobatics as the gang attempts to distract and spy on the arms traders. What attracts you to circus acts, and how easy is it to translate their performances to film?

The best example of this is Elastic Girl, played by Julie Ferrier. She has a stage background, but to do all the contortions we hired a real contortionist who now lives in Germany but is from Russia.

I created the character of Tiny Pete just so we could use those crazy automated sculptures. I am a big fan of naive art and go to this museum near where I live in Paris. There, I found these wonderful machines that I loved so much, I had to put them in my film. Luckily the artist, Gilbert Peyre, loved my films and lent them to us. He gave us a walking chair, a monkey, a mouse and a dancing skirt. They are magnificent.

You also directed Alien: Resurrection. How did the Hollywood experience affect you? Would you go back and do it again?

Amélie is my favourite film; I put my soul into that, my own life, and my own story. I had started collecting ideas before I made Alien: Resurrection, but didn't know what the common thread was. Then I came back from Hollywood, picked the project up, started again and suddenly found that the common thread was the girl.

As for going back to Hollywood, yes, who knows?

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The best defence against Alzheimer’s

Spoiler: the best way to avoid Alzheimer's is to stay young.

At the recent meeting of the European Academy of Neurology in Copenhagen, doctors were signing up to attend a workshop teaching non-specialists to test for cognitive decline in their patients. How do you tell the difference between a scatterbrain and a case of early dementia?

It’s a question that is increasingly urgent. Last year, 47.5 million people were living with dementia. That will have risen to 75.6 million by 2030 and will reach 140 million in 2050. The World Health Organisation has declared that dementia should be regarded as a global public health priority. But what can we do about it?

The primary cause of dementia, accounting for roughly 70 per cent of cases, is Alzheimer’s disease. It’s all very well to put a name to it, but we don’t have a clear understanding of the mechanisms that cause it – or medicines to battle it. Alzheimer’s drugs have a high rate of failure. In the decade to 2012, 99.6 per cent of newly developed drugs failed to make it past clinical trials. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s and none on the horizon, either.

There was, however, a small breakthrough last month. A study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine suggests that Alzheimer’s could be a result of fighting infections from other diseases that would, if left unchecked, ravage the brain. The hard lumps of sticky plaque in the brain that characterise the onset of Alzheimer’s seem to be the result of the immune system attempting to isolate and neutralise microbes and other pathogens that have made their way into the brain. The plaques catch pathogens, preventing infection from taking hold. Unfortunately, it’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t: the plaques also trigger inflammation that leads to the death of brain cells.

This observation mirrors another catch-22 with Alzheimer’s. Some researchers have suggested that the drug failures might be averted by getting candidate treatments to the disease earlier, before symptoms appear. Put simply, the drugs may stand a better chance of success when trying to counter the first stages of damage to the brain. The problem is: how do you get that early diagnosis?

There are various genetic indicators for a heightened predisposition to developing Alzheimer’s. A gene called apolipoprotein E, for instance, comes in three variants: one kind seems to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s while another increases it. Other genes – variously associated with the body’s uptake of cholesterol, its propensity to engender inflammation and the efficiency of communication between neurons – also have a role to play in raising or lowering the chances of onset.

However, the interplay between genetic factors, environmental factors and what appears to be pure luck makes foreknowledge of whether Alzheimer’s will strike any individual impossible. It’s no wonder that the US National Institutes of Health does not generally recommend genetic testing as a worthwhile route for anyone wanting to know their future. After all, a result that indicates you are more likely than the average person to develop dementia is, in many ways, little more than a heavy psychological burden, to be borne until the symptoms start to appear – a scenario that keeps you stressed (a grave health risk) even if onset never happens. If the drugs don’t work yet, why would anyone sign up to be tested?

In the absence of a reliable test or cure, the best advice seems to be to delay ageing as much as possible, particularly where cardiovascular health is concerned. It’s an observation that fits with last month’s breakthrough. The plaque-provoking pathogens reach the brain through the weakening of the blood-brain barrier, a wall of cells that wraps around blood vessels and prevents foreign bodies from passing into the brain’s circulatory system. This weakening happens with age, suggesting that action to delay the degradation of the cardiovascular system will also delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Here, at least, we have some good news: the rate of appearance of dementia cases seems to be in decline. This may be a spin-off of our attempts to cut deaths from heart disease. It seems that as we take control of blood pressure and cholesterol levels, making significant improvements to our heart and circulatory function, we are unwittingly improving our cerebral health, too – almost certainly because the brain requires good blood flow to operate well.

The surest way to avoid Alzheimer’s, then, is simple to state and impossible to achieve. All you have to do is stay young. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain