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?

RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era