When Jean-Pierre Jeunet found his Amelie, he quickly knew he also had found his Mathilde.
French actress Audrey Tautou shot to international stardom with Jeunet’s frolicsome 2001 romance “Amelie,” about a sheltered waif in modern Paris venturing into the world in search of happiness.
Now Jeunet applies the visual flair and breathless pace of “Amelie” to the heavier story of Mathilde in “A Very Long Engagement,” starring Tautou as a sheltered waif in post-World War I France venturing into the world in search of happiness.
Before you roll your eyes and decide that Jeunet and Tautou are stuck in a groove, consider that “A Very Long Engagement” is based on the late Sebastien Japrisot’s 1991 novel, the only book the director ever read that he felt compelled to adapt to film.
Reading the novel years before he made “Amelie,” Jeunet was drawn to the fragile yet fiercely determined nymph at the story’s center. He found a kindred storyteller in Japrisot, whose nimble prose resembles the whimsical voice-overs of “Amelie.”
A perfect teamSo was “A Very Long Engagement” a natural followup to “Amelie,” or was “Amelie” shaped by Jeunet’s impressions after reading “A Very Long Engagement”?
“I don’t know if the book influenced Jean-Pierre when he made ‘Amelie,”’ Tautou said, sitting alongside Jeunet for an interview with The Associated Press. “Maybe it was more unconscious, because when you read the book, it’s true, immediately you feel that this book was written for him.”
Likewise, Jeunet figures Mathilde was written for Tautou, who won the lead in “Amelie” after Emily Watson turned it down.
The success of “Amelie,” whose $33.2 million domestic haul makes it the top-grossing French-language flick ever in the United States, gave Jeunet the clout to pursue “A Very Long Engagement,” which he had wanted to turn into a film for more than a decade. But unlike “Amelie,” there was no second choice for Jeunet on a lead actress.
“Because I met Audrey, she gave me what I needed to make this film,” Jeunet said. “If she had refused it, I think I would have not made this film. Because for me, she was Mathilde.”
Finding the balancePart love story, part war tale, “A Very Long Engagement” follows the travels of a woman who — against all evidence to the contrary — refuses to believe her fiance died in the trenches. She embarks on a far-flung journey to discover the truth, enlisting a colorful assortment of confederates in her search, including Jodie Foster, who took on a small role acting in French.
Though packed with graphic battle images depicting the bedlam and absurdity of World War I trench combat, the film is laced with warm humor, fanciful images and a breakneck initial sequence reminiscent of the “Amelie” opening, right down to the beguiling voice-overs.
“The balance between the horror of the war and the tenderness of the love story was the interesting thing. The contrast between these two universes, these two worlds, was for me the richness of the movie,” Tautou said.
The petite 26-year-old actress once thought about becoming a primatologist because she was interested in studying monkeys. In her late teens, Tautou began studying acting, and her first feature film, 1999’s “Venus Beauty Institute,” earned her honors for best new actress at the Cesars, France’s equivalent of the Academy Awards.
Tautou’s other movies include the ensemble tale “The Spanish Apartment” and its upcoming followup “The Russian Dolls,” the romantic thriller “He Loves Me...He Loves Me Not” and Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things,” her first English-language film.
Jeunet spotted Tautou on a poster for “Venus Beauty Institute” and brought her in to audition for “Amelie.” When Tautou’s screen test started, Jeunet realized almost instantly she had the role.
“All my life I remember the tests, because after three or four seconds, I knew she was Amelie,” Jeunet said. “I was hidden behind the camera because I cried.”
“Amelie” grabbed five Oscar nominations, including best foreign-language film and original screenplay, co-written by Jeunet.
Ineligible for Oscar“A Very Long Engagement” might have become a favorite to win the foreign-language Oscar this awards season, but the film did not open in France in time to qualify for that category.
It is eligible in other categories, and with a comparatively weak field of prospects among Hollywood films, “A Very Long Engagement” is catching buzz as a potential nominee for best picture, actress and director. Jeunet said he prefers going after the bigger Oscar prize, anyway.
The 49-year-old director became interested in film as a youth, when he bought a Super 8 millimeter camera and began making short movies, then animated shorts, music videos and commercials.
“It was my philosophy, if you want to do film, buy a camera and do something. Just do it,” Jeunet said. “I did it little by little. It was a long process, especially in France. You have to be patient.”
His first two feature films, 1992’s post-apocalyptic black comedy “Delicatessen” and 1995’s visually wild fantasy “The City of Lost Children,” earned Jeunet acclaim and landed him in Hollywood to direct “Alien: Resurrection,” the fourth installment of Sigourney Weaver’s space-monster franchise.
Neither Tautou nor Jeunet have settled on their next projects, though the prospect of a third collaboration between them prompted playful banter.
“Yes. It’s impossible to avoid,” Jeunet said, adding an aside to Tautou, “Trilogy?”
“Never,” Tautou slipped in quietly. “Never again. It’s just too much promotion.”
“The most difficult part is to find a good story to interest you for three to four years,” Jeunet said. “And if I find another story with a young woman...”
“...with dark hair, dark eyes,” Tautou interjected. “Not too tall, not too short, and she’s French, maybe it’s going to be me.”
“OK,” Jeunet concluded, feigning tired resignation. “One more time.”