I remember the day I saw The City of Lost Children, the first of Jeunet’s films to really breakthrough into US art houses.
I didn’t know it then, but I’m sure now it was one of those outbursts of total imagination, like Caligari and Metropolis and Brazil, films whose singularity is without precedent or successor. In trying to describe it, one inevitably sells it short, but if we’re going to try to understand how far Jean-Pierre Jeunet has fallen in the years since The City of Lost Children, it’s important to try to put a finger on what he once was.
The achievement, as always, is twofold; one happened in front of the camera and the other behind it. First, with co-director Marc Caro, Jeunet created the world of The City of Lost Children. Simply, they gave us a mise-en-scene that expressed the sound and complicated logic of their new world. Vivid sets, costumes, and a company of actors matched only by the faces in Daumier, gave us just about everything we would need to experience total immersion. Then came the camera, the second achievement. Having set the stage, Jeunet and Caro bent it into the kind of expressionistic nightmare Jacques Tati might have had after a night of reading The Brothers Grimm, drunk on absinthe. Their taffy-like camera could go anywhere and do anything. It was elastic. It flew. It moved like a flea, it moved like a crane.
I remember the day – days after seeing The City of Lost Children – when I discovered that Jeunet and Caro had made another film, Delicatessen, which I must have been to young to have caught on its first run in 1991. I rented it, and had the same eureka – perhaps a double eureka – compounded by the new knowledge of Jeunet and Caro I brought to the viewing. To this day, I’m still not sure which film is better. Like a good fairy tale, The City of Lost Children packs an emotional punch; but Delicatessen, in its wit and caricature, is as clever about human strangeness as Bunuel’s drollest films. I could watch them forever and – as Joni Mitchell says – still be on my feet.
Then Jenuet got hot, took a job directing Alien Resurrection (the fourth, and worst, of the Alien franchise), retreated for several years of wound-licking, and returned with Amelie in 2001. There isn’t really much to say about that. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but I remember it felt like the product of a diluted sensibility. What it had was an excess of charm (almost cloying) and a colorful, Rube Goldberg approach to narrative. Okay, fine. If people loved it, it was probably because they didn’t know about the great work that had preceded it. Those of us who were already fans of Jeunet and Caro expected more from the circus.
After Amelie, Jeunet continued on without Caro (they split after Alien Resurrection) and lost yet another shade of darkness. A Very Long Engagement was a failed attempt to get into David Lean mode; you could feel Jeunet desperately wanting to go global and it came off as insincere. Once again, Audrey Tautou was set up to be the next Audrey Hepburn, but I think we can all see now she was really nothing more than a human pastry. Yum, but where’s the beef?
Now we have Micmacs, Jeunet’s limpest yet. I saw it with a friend, also a fan, and we left the theater with our heads down. “Gilliam, Burton, and now Jeunet,” my friend sighed. I sighed too.