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A very French style

Special to The Times

It took French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet 12 years to find the means to make his new film, “A Very Long Engagement,” based on the bestselling novel by Sebastien Japrisot. Set in France during World War I, it is an epic love story about Mathilde (Audrey Tautou), a young Breton woman who refuses to believe that her beloved Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) has died in the trenches.

“It’s a story about love, tenacity and hope,” says the soft-spoken, down-to-earth Jeunet. “I’ve realized that ... I’m talking about myself as well. Because I was born in the provinces in a milieu from which I should not have become a director. I wasn’t at all destined for it, but it was because I had the will -- like Mathilde -- that I succeeded. That’s why the story touched me.”

Warner Bros. had long held the rights to the book and plans to make the story in English. But thanks to the international success of Jeunet’s “Amelie,” the French director was given carte blanche to make the film, which is the third-most-expensive film in French moviemaking history. “A Very Long Engagement” cost about $60 million and was made in France by a French production company partly funded by Warner Bros., which is distributing the film worldwide. It opened Friday in the United States.

It’s not every day that a Hollywood studio throws its capital behind a French-language movie for worldwide distribution. “They’re taking a risk,” Jeunet says at the end of October, sitting in an empty office at a special-effects studio on the outskirts of Paris.

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“But it was a French story, and I wanted to do it in French.” He told Warner executives that he also wanted to use French actors and technicians and write the script himself. “At every point they said, ‘Yes, OK.’ I said, ‘When are the troubles going to start?’ And they never did. I had as much freedom as I had doing ‘Amelie’ -- 100%.”

Jeunet, 51, has a stable of technicians and character actors who have worked with him throughout his five movies, which include the black comedy “Delicatessen” and “Alien: Resurrection.” The only non-French among the filmmakers this time are Los Angeles-based composer Angelo Badalamenti and Jodie Foster -- who, armed with her resume and near-perfect, accentless French, campaigned for a role.

Jeunet says he offered her a cameo after explaining that the lead was taken by a younger actress. “She made me aware that she wanted a much bigger role,” he says with a smile. “And I said, ‘No problem, Madame Foster.’ ” He offered her a supporting role as a soldier’s wife. “She was super-professional, easy, adorable, a pleasure. Not the smallest problem.”

Jeunet’s desire to make a film that was nearly 100% French meant resisting the temptation to shoot battle scenes in Romania or the Czech Republic, where it would have been cheaper and they wouldn’t have had to battle with environmentalists over the preservation of native Poitiers frogs and wild herbs.

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He employed 600 freelance entertainment workers, saved his special-effects studio from dissolving, and spent more than $45 million of the budget (the actual cost of production, he says) in France. “I’m very proud of that,” he says, adding that he might have made one of the most expensive films in French moviemaking history, but he watched every cent. “It would have made me sick to go over budget,” he says. “I did everything to respect it. I was brought up that way.”

France has caught up on special-effects know-how in the last decade, Jeunet says, and the same movie made in Hollywood would have cost three times more.

“I think in Hollywood, there’s a tendency to compensate with money for incompetence or mistakes. Here we don’t throw money out the window, we don’t have 300 people on set every day. Everyone does his work, and it works very well. On the other hand, we don’t have the right to an error.”

But if Jeunet insists that his film is French, the film’s origins have created an ongoing controversy in France, where some people don’t agree that a film funded by an American studio should qualify for French government subsidies.

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“Some people say it isn’t a French film if it was made with American money,” he says. “Of course it is.”

A strong opening

A month before the film’s opening in France, Jeunet was worrying that audiences and critics might make him “pay for the success of Amelie.” But the movie sold 1.6 million tickets in its opening week (box office in France is measured in ticket sales, not monetary amounts), making its debut at No. 1 and surpassing “Amelie’s” 1.2-million opening week. Reviewers were largely enthusiastic, with the Le Monde calling it “poetic,” and another French daily, Liberation, pronouncing it “epic and playful.”

Jeunet says he has always been fascinated by World War I, which, unlike World War II, has not been the subject of many films. “I don’t know why, but by the time I was 14, I had read everything there was about this war,” he says. “I had the impression of having lived through it in another life. But to just do a film on the war would have been too expensive and violent and unbearable.

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“I asked myself how poetry and war could cohabitate. In the end, life is like that. There are so many moments of incredible violence, and then a bit of gentleness. C’est la vie.”

Because it unfolds in letters, Japrisot’s book was largely considered “unadaptable,” Jeunet says. “It was a huge amount of work,” admits the famous workhorse. “But writing an original screenplay, you ask yourself, ‘What do I have to say? Who on the planet will be interested in this?’ I had enormous doubts about ‘Amelie.’ Here, I already had a wonderful story, the book had sold well, everyone agrees that it’s great. That’s super-reassuring. After that, there’s work to do, but that doesn’t scare me.”

In Jeunet’s adaptation, which he calls “faithful” to its source, he took his fearless heroine out of a wheelchair and gave her a limp and converted most of the novel’s letters into dialogue and narration. The novelist died a week before Jeunet finished the script.

Jeunet created stylized images of the backdrop of war: a man rising up in slow motion in the gray fog of an explosion; a horse caught in a tree; a man drowning in mud. He says these arresting images are inspired by real events reported in books and found in period documents.

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He also offers a charming vision of Paris circa 1920, where Mathilde travels after the war, looking for clues to Manech’s whereabouts. Les Halles (now a reviled, rundown shopping mall) was a bustling open food market in the heart of the city known as “the belly of Paris” then, and the Musee D’Orsay was a grand train station.

“I always dreamed of seeing that,” says Jeunet. “I thought it would be fun to re-create it.” He turned the D’Orsay back into a train station and re-created the Trocadero and the Place de l’Opera, swarming with thousands of pedestrian extras in place of today’s tour buses and cars. “It was fun,” he says. “Of course, it was an enormous amount of work” for a glimpse.

The scene at the train station lasts just a few seconds-- the trains pull in and the camera descends to a close-up of Mathilde making a call. “It makes us want to see it again,” Jeunet says. “We worked a lot to see it for four seconds, but I like that more than to show it for 30 seconds to say, ‘Look at how hard we worked.’ It’s better to look for four seconds. I find that more elegant.”

Painstakingly cast

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THE film was a unique chance for French actors to see how a big production works, Jeunet says, and Ulliel, 19, who has won notice in France in small films with high-profile directors like Andre Techine, notes that working on such a big picture required a new kind of stamina -- but so did getting the part. Jeunet put him through a challenging audition process in which he would perform for up to three hours at a time in costume and with accessories.

“He directed the tryouts as if we were already on set,” Ulliel says by phone. “I think he’s someone who takes a lot of care with casting and auditions, and when he’s convinced he has the right person for the character, he leaves them a lot of freedom on the set.”

Tautou says by phone that it was difficult to stay in character during the six-month shoot. “It was pretty tiring and almost painful to try and keep that internal feeling of suffering without necessarily expressing it,” she says. “It was like a little unbleeding wound that I had forced myself to keep the whole shoot, because I was afraid of losing it.

“I think I still have a lot to learn, notably about how to manage my emotions so I don’t wear myself out. Not to give away too much too early.”

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Some viewers might find the character with this invisible wound indistinguishable from the openly pouting Amelie, who waited for her true love to discover her until the happy end of the film. But Tautou disagrees that Amelie and Mathilde are soul sisters.

“I was aware that certain people would look for and find the similarities,” she says. “But it’s not at all the same role. I accepted the role of Mathilde because it’s a magnificent character in the book and in the script, and I never compared the characters.”

“It’s true that a lot of my heroines resemble one another,” Jeunet says of his penchant for girl-women waiting for princes who have not yet come. “But in terms of the work of the actress, this is very different. When I look at ‘Amelie’ again, Audrey looks like such a gamin. And now she is sure of herself. For this role she had to be cold, and she had to be very concentrated. It’s a very, very different kind of acting. But of course the connotations are the same.”

Jeunet says he knew that Tautou was his perfect Mathilde and that he couldn’t have made the film without her. Tautou says she said yes to a second film with Jeunet without hesitating and would gladly do another. “Jean-Pierre and I share the worry of work,” she says, “to work hard, to try and always look for the best possible solution.”

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Tautou describes Jeunet as a person of great generosity. “His universe is poetic, full of childhood,” she says. “He has a unique and overflowing imagination and a lot of intelligence and a great respect for his audience.”

It is Jeunet’s accessible storytelling, arch humor and appealing visual style that have made him both enormously popular and scorned by those who accuse him of favoring style over substance. Like him or not, Jeunet’s stamp is on every frame of the film.

“The idea of having a style is very important to me,” he says. “In literature, it’s obvious; less so in moviemaking. It can even be suspect in France. For me, all the great directors -- and I’m not pretentious enough to call myself one -- like Fellini, Scorsese, Orson Welles, Kurosawa, etc. -- have a style. It’s not an obligation, but I have a preference for directors whose style is recognizable.” Jeunet says he doesn’t impose his style on his subjects -- he simply knows what kinds of movies he knows how to make.

“I read ‘The Life of Pi,’ ” Jeunet says. “I found the book wonderful, but I said, ‘It’s not for you.’ That demands a director who will totally respect the story. I need to put in my own ideas, the visual style, the poetry, the offbeat humor, the love story always with a kind of woman-child. Realism bugs me. Not as a viewer -- I like watching very realistic films. But as a director, I need to take things over. There’s another director who I like a lot -- Jacques Prevert -- and I have a need to Prevertize stories, to make them poetic, to have a particular view of things, and there are certain stories that don’t take to that. That’s why I have such a hard time finding stories.”

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Speaking of which, he volunteers: “I have no idea for the next one. To find a subject that’s going to motivate you for four years to do nothing but that, to see nobody. To do good films with a bit of talent and a lot of work isn’t that hard. But to find the right story that will interest people, that isn’t too vulgar or just for making money -- that’s what’s hard. In the end, when I look at the films of the year, there were films I liked. I adored ‘City of God.’ But films I would have liked to have done? There are very few.”


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