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?