For director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Amélie began rather simply. "I recently opened an old file I have and I saw that my very first note for the film was, 'It has to be positive,'" reveals the filmmaker. "At the time, feel-good movies didn't really exist, but I wanted to make something positive."

Based on an original story by Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant, Amélie follows an introverted waitress with an overactive imagination (played by Audrey Tautou) who makes it her mission to help those around her find happiness. Along the way, she inadvertently opens herself up to both friendship and, perhaps most surprising of all, true love. The beloved romantic comedy is known for its nesting-doll-style plot and hyper-stylized aesthetic, but for Jeunet, it will always be a love letter to the city that he calls home.

"When I got back from L.A. after making Alien Resurrection, I saw my city — Paris — and I thought, 'Oh my God, it's a beautiful city!' I forgot how beautiful it is," he says. "I had the same feeling the first time I came to Paris in '74, and I thought, 'I have to show Parisian and French people how beautiful Paris really is.' And we cheated, of course. We got rid of the dog s**t on the street."

To say that the film was well-received would be an understatement. Not only was it met with widespread critical acclaim, but it also went on to earn over $170 million worldwide — greatly surpassing its modest $10 million production budget. On top of all of that, Amélie received five nominations at the 2002 Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film (the category that is now Best International Feature Film), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Sound, and Best Original Screenplay for Jeunet and Laurant. The filmmaker recalls that initially it didn't feel like Amélie would be a hit, as the film was infamously dropped and not screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

"The first reaction with Cannes was so negative. We were concerned. I was [thinking], 'Okay, it's a piece of s**t!' And little by little, it became something else," Jeunet recalls. "All throughout that year, we experienced good surprises and good news. We won at the BAFTAs and the César Awards. We had made a hugely successful French-language film, and then we got nominated for the Oscars. It was surprising because, when you write something very personal, it's supposed to be a small success. I was ready for it to earn 1 million euros, and that'd be it. And then it became more than just a movie. It became a phenomenon."

More than 20 years later, Amélie has been re-released in theaters by Sony Pictures Classics. Jeunet has witnessed the film's legacy grow firsthand, but even he is still occasionally taken aback by just how widely and passionately it's beloved.

"Two years ago, Amélie was playing at the Cannes Film Festival on the beach for free. It was on a big screen and it was noisy and there were dogs and kids playing. The organizers warned me that because it was a rainy day, there'd probably only be 50 people who'd show," Jeunet tells A.frame. "But it was packed. 800 people were there, and they turned away 2,000 more. The love for the film really has continued for 23 years."


A.frame: Amélie is such an overwhelmingly positive film, yet its inciting incident is Amélie's reaction to Princess Diana's tragic death. What inspired that?

I don't know really. That car accident happened when I was in L.A. making Alien, and it wasn't a huge deal for me because I was just so busy. I remember when I came back to Paris, though, I was surprised to see all the newspapers still talking about it. It was a big, big deal. The film is a little bit timeless, but there are also signs of the time in which it was made. It's a bit like Delicatessen in that way. Delicatessen is very timeless. With Amélie, the look is timeless, but not so much the story. It tells a contemporary story, so I just thought, "Why not include Princess Di or something from this specific period?"

I know filmmakers sometimes have a hard time looking back at their films. Can you still rewatch Amelie?

Yes. I am probably the only filmmaker in the world who loves to watch his own movies, because even if I see things in them that I think are flawed, I'll go, "Oh, this isn't good. I'll make something else that's better now!" But I always have the good memories. Watching my films reminds of the memories I created while I made them. It's like watching a vacation you took on film, you know? I love it. Recently, Amelie was on TV and I watched it. I can't avoid it.

When you think back now, do you have any favorite memories from making the film?

It was such a pleasure to make. Some films are a nightmare every day: For The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet, our lead wasn't always available, because he was busy on a TV show, so it was a nightmare. With The City of Lost Children, we had some money problems, and the same was true of A Very Long Engagement. Every film is plagued by some kind of problem. Not Amélie. The only problem we experienced making that film was before it even began shooting. I wrote the film's script for Emily Watson, but a few weeks before shooting, she wasn't able to do it because of scheduling reasons. I was very embarrassed, but it ended up being a stroke of luck because I ultimately met Audrey Tautou, whom I didn't know. From that moment on, everything was easy. There were no problems.

I have plenty of good memories from Amélie. I remember when we were filming one scene, there was this black sky in the background and beautiful light shining on the green trees and there was wind because a storm was approaching. It was kind of a visual miracle. You have to shoot really quickly when moments like that come because they won't be possible 10 minutes later, you know? Amélie was full of those kinds of surprises.

The film was famously chosen not to screen at Cannes. What was it like for you to see it be so warmly received in France in spite of that?

It's funny, because we presented a very early version of the film to the Cannes judges and they don't really like that, because if they say yes, then they're trapped showing the finished film whether they like it or not. So, I understand somewhat why they didn't choose to show it. But I remember when we showed it to the Cannes selector at the time, Gilles Jacob, I was in the cabin with the projector and I could see his bald head under the projector's light, and I just felt some kind of vibration. I could feel that he didn't like the film. Funnily enough, though, he moved his office in Paris years later to a street called Rue Amélie. Can you believe that? It was a kind of punishment for him.

In a way, his refusal to show the film at Cannes was the best advertising we could have asked for, because it caused such a scandal. We had so many positive reviews and the film ended up on the covers of so many magazines that he had to justify it on TV, because everyone saw it and said, "What? Why wasn't this chosen?" It was a good bit of advertising for us.

They say success can be a double-edged sword. Did the popularity of Amélie make you feel more nervous than you might have otherwise been when you began to work on 2004's A Very Long Engagement?

No. When you have a huge success, the follow-up is always easy. When you don't have a huge success, you always have to fight to find the money and the budget. But that wasn't my experience immediately after Amélie. I could have made a film about four pages from the phone book if I'd wanted to, and that was the perfect opportunity I needed to make A Very Long Engagement. I'd wanted to make that film for a long time, but I couldn't get the rights to Sébastien Japrisot's novel, because Warner Bros. owned them. But because of the success of Amélie, they told me I could make it.

I remember during my meeting with Warner Bros. in L.A., I said, "I want to shoot it in French, I want to shoot it with a French actress, and I want final cut." They said, "No problem." They said yes to everything, and I remember thinking, "Where's the trap?" There wasn't one. They gave me total freedom and we made a beautiful French film, and we had a very expensive budget for a French-language movie. It was a kind of dream. And I remember when I met Audrey Tautou, I thought, "She's the perfect Mathilde for A Very Long Engagement." If I hadn't met her on Amélie, I don't know what I would have done.

When you look at Amélie now, do you think your own approach to filmmaking has evolved or changed at all since you made it?

Not really. It's more of just a question of freedom now. It's very difficult to get the same kind of creative freedom I had 20 years ago. It wasn't easy for Marc Caro and me to make Delicatessen. We spent 10 years trying to get the money and convince people to let us make it, but we had the pleasure of experiencing great success with a big budget and total freedom. Now, it's getting difficult for that to happen. When I made my last film, Bigbug, I couldn't find the money to make it in France. It was impossible. In France, they said, "You can't mix robots and real people. It won't work." It was impossible to convince them otherwise. Netflix really saved the film, because they said yes to it in 24 hours.

To work with a big budget nowadays in France? Forget it. If you go over 5 or 6 million euros, it's considered too costly. I'm used to having big budgets, and I take my time on all my films, because of course, to make a beautiful movie you need time. This lack of freedom is really the worst difference between now and when I was making films like Delicatessen and Amélie. And now, the marketing people have all the power. It's like they pulled off a coup and nobody has spoken about it yet. Now, the marketing department explains to you what you have to do. Even when I made Alien Resurrection, I had freedom and they trusted me even though I didn't speak English at all at that time. They trusted me and they gave me real freedom. After working with David Fincher, Ridley Scott, and James Cameron, they were very courageous producers. I'd made only The City of Lost Children and Delicatessen before then. Now? I don't think it could work. I couldn't be guaranteed the same level of freedom.


How does it feel to know a new generation of moviegoers will be exposed to Amélie for the first time, thanks to its theatrical re-release this year?

You know, sometimes young people come up to ask me to sign a copy of the film and they say, "This is my mother's favorite film!" So, it is actually a good opportunity to show Amélie to younger people. It's a film for people of every age, I think. The other day, some people knocked on my office door and they had a little five-year-old girl with them, and they told me that she watches Amélie every day. Can you believe that? Apparently, she saw the poster in my office and wanted to come. It was a bit weird for her, though, because they introduced me and she couldn't quite understand it. It was like, "You're the director? But Amélie exists!"

How has it been for you to see Amélie's legacy grow over the past 20 years?

I'm used to it a little bit, because I live in Montmartre very close to the cafe in Amélie and people still stop to take pictures of it all the time. When I shop in my neighborhood, I'll see groups of people explaining to others, "This is the cafe from Amélie." They never recognize me, but it's very funny. Sometimes, I'll try to say, "Hey, I made Amélie," and they'll always say, "Of course, you did..." They don't believe me.

A very funny thing happened once. I had an appointment with Jodie Foster at the cafe from Amélie for A Very Long Engagement. We were waiting outside the cafe for a taxi and a young girl came walking up with a camera. We didn't know if she was going to ask for a picture with Jodie or not. Instead, the girl looked at Jodie and said, "Please, can you move a little?" Because she wanted to take a picture of the cafe itself!

What do you think it is about Amélie that makes it such an enduring film to so many?

I think it's because it speaks about generosity. Amélie doesn't want anything in return. She does what she does for free, and I think that's a very strong idea. It's a strong idea, because everybody simultaneously thinks that human beings are the worst pieces of s**t on the planet and also that every human being has some good in them, too. The film speaks on that, and there are also ideas in it about the small details of life, and those resonate with people. Sometimes the stars are just aligned. Sometimes, you cross a city and every light is green. Sometimes, it's the opposite. When Micmacs was released, for example, Michael Jackson had the bad idea to die, so every theater pushed our film out to play This Is It. We lost the theaters, and we were f****d. But it wasn't ever like that with Amélie. It was the exact opposite.

By Alex Welch


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