French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet made his name with the futuristic Delicatessen, then crafted a fantastic world of rusted gizmos and Gaultier costumes for The City of Lost Children. In 2001, he struck gold with Audrey Tautou in the whimsical romance Amélie. Now they’re back together with A Very Long Engagement, a darkly lovely adaptation of the Sébastien Japrisot World War I novel.
Why a war movie? Because of Iraq?
No, all the time there are wars, and every war is stupid, full of pain and suffering, torture, destruction, mourning.
And World War I?
Well, I must have some morbid fascination, because the war was so horrible. My joke was that I may have been alive during WWI—but I don’t believe in reincarnation. I am fascinated with this war mainly because it’s disappearing. Everyone who was there is dead or dying—maybe next month.
Did you find it hard to apply your style to such grim material?
Well, I kept my style in the romantic part of the film. For the war, I kept my short lens to shoot, and used the crane movement, but we tried to stay close to real references. In France, there are so many war books and photos, it’s almost fashionable. These shots in the film: the broken cross. The dead horse. The half of a head blown apart. They are from incredible pictures, with a terrible immediacy. So graphic they’re beautiful—no: aesthetic. We tried to re-create them. But if you made a film of only those images, it would be abominable.
So that’s where Tautou comes in.
Yes, as Mathilde. Her story is a love story, but more a story of her willpower, how she must stand against everyone who doubts her.
Before this, I never would have thought of her as tough.
Yes, she’s very fragile, in many ways a very little girl—but so strong, too. I like to cast these small women and show how strong they can be. That’s why I wanted Winona [Ryder] for Alien: Resurrection—to be half-robot, half-human, strong. Winona told me she would have liked to play Amélie. Audrey had to stay tough the whole time.
Will you work with her again?
I joke with her, “We’ll have to make a trilogy now.”
But your next film might be Harry Potter, right?
I can say Warner has offered me the fifth film. I’ve started to read the book, but I need to rest and listen to music before I make up my mind. Life is short, and I need to love everything I shoot. I have to either find a story that I love—or create my own universe.