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?

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle