Last time Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet visited Chicago, he felt trapped in a kind of unreality.
"This success is too amazing to be true," Jeunet said in 2001, as Amelie reached the United States after besting Planet of the Apes and Shrek at the French box office. "I did a small film, and it's a huge success."
This year, Jeunet releases a sprawling, big-budget World War I epic that he hopes will receive the same reception.
A Very Long Engagement reteams him with Amelie pixie Audrey Tautou, who injects Jeunet's fablelike sensibilities into the stark realities of war. Based on the novel by Sebastien Japrisot, the film follows Mathilde (Tautou) in her search to find her lover, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), years after he vanished from the trenches of the Somme.
"I got the opportunity to make this big film because of Amelie," says Jeunet, 53. "For this film, we are at the top of our careers -- my crew and myself. Now we are ready to descend, until the hospice."
Jeunet first surfaced in 1991 with Delicatessen, a futuristic dark comedy made with co-director Marc Caro. In 1995, the pair made surrealistic dreamscape, The City of Lost Children, before Jeunet left the partnership to direct Alien: Resurrection (1997). The candy-coated love story of Amelie was as much Jeunet responding to Caro's distaste for sentimentality as it was a chance to make a more personal film.
"It was the most difficult part, to find a beautiful story -- and a positive story," Jeunet says. "To write a dark story is easy. To imagine a positive story without it being too sugary or violent, like Hollywood, this is difficult."
A Very Long Engagement represents Jeunet's attempt to knit those sensibilities together, juxtaposing the mud-and-blood-caked horrors of trench warfare against Mathilde's optimistic-against-the-odds search for Manech. "It's a story of hope, like Amelie. But it's a not a fairy tale," Jeunet says. Like Amelie, A Very Long Engagement is also a rejection of cynicism, he says.
"It's important, especially in France, because we are so cynical in France. It's a question of culture," Jeunet says. "In the U.S.A., it's hypocrisy, and in France, it's cynicism. Every country has a defect."
Though now officially among France's superstar elite -- even if he's not always recognized in the street -- Jeunet still faces obstacles at home.
Before it was released in France, Amelie was rejected by the Cannes Film Festival. Even after its blockbuster run at the box office, some critics accused Jeunet of "cinematic ethnic cleansing" for not including many of Montmartre's Middle Eastern residents in his fable.
Then, in 2002, Amelie lost the best foreign picture award to the little-seen No Man's Land. The loss didn't faze Jeunet.
"To have five nominations, it was a real dream," he says. "On TV, [the ceremony] is pretty boring. But when you are inside, you have goose bumps all the time. We were on another planet."
This year, however, the French selection committee is sending Christopher Barratier's Les Choristes to the Oscars, and two associations of French producers have dragged Jeunet and the production of A Very Long Engagement into court.
Upbeat Jeunet dismisses any whisper of conspiracy.
"When you climb very high, the missiles are much bigger," he says.
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