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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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times