Painting the screen.
Historically and contemporarily, France has maintained a consistent struggle with Hollywood dominance over world cinema. From the earliest days of motion picture, the invention of ‘Cinematographe’, to the arrival on cinema Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) and more recently utilizing visual advancements made using digital colour treatment and visual effects, France has made a distinctive mark on world cinema. Jean Pierre Jeunet is one French filmmaker in particular whose films have contributed to world cinema through their progressive approach to historic re-telling and visual representations. This essay examines the formal and thematic elements of Jeunet’s films, Delicatessen (Jeunet, J P 1991), Amelie (Jeunet, J P 2001) and A Very Long Engagement (Jeunet, J P 2004) and attempts to illustrate Jeunet’s creative processes and emphasize why his contribution to world cinema is unique and important.
Jeunet’s first feature film Delicatessen is perhaps his darkest, both ideologically and visually. The confined setting, sombre colouration and unusual blend of immoral, depressed, and sometimes disturbingly quirky characters convey a despairing world to an audience. Indeed, even the ‘foreignness of the word ‘Delicatessen’ serves to heighten the viewers sense of disorientation in relation to the film’s temporal and spatial setting’ (Ezra, E 2008: 25) This notion reiterates one of the film’s elementary thematic concerns; shadowing historic themes with illusory visuals and an obscure narrative.
Delicatessen parallels contemporary and historical subjects. The character of the ‘Boucher’ in particular is associable to Klaus Barbie’s nickname ‘The Butcher of Lyon’, a war criminal whose trial had taken place only 4 years before the film’s release. This association coupled with one the film’s central themes (meat and potatoes of the narrative) is the subject of cannibalism, which in itself is a reiterative composition of various underlying allusions. The cannibalistic component of Delicatessen effectuates multiple indications to not only Barbie’s atrocities, but also captures the suppressed atmosphere of wartime indigence and the preoccupancy with obtaining basic provisions. Furthermore, the theme of cannibalism reflects the notions of the human potential for barbarity within supposed civilized society, a subject emphasized in classic essays written by Montaigne in the late sixteenth century and a familiar ideology amongst French school children.
Similarly to Montaigne essays (essentially discussions of good versus evil), themes in Delicatessen signify an inherent focus on adversarial contexts. Nearly all the characters in the film are pitted against the Boucher, a representation of evil also comparable to Hitler or even the collective German army during World War 2. The ‘Troglodistes’ living in the sewers also draw figurative comparisons to the French Resistance during the war and their vegetarianism symbolizes a counteraction or defiance against the tyranny of evil oppressors (Boucher). These allusions to historical figures and subjects integrated into the film’s devitalized aesthetic evoke a traumatic episode in French history. Delicatessen is a clear example of how Jeunet’s films are reworked and reshaped, often behind colourful and humorous guises to offer the audience an implausible, unpredictable performance that obscures heavier, underlying subjects.
The colour schemes Jeunet chooses in particular highlight many of his film’s artful visual compositions. Drawing inspiration from the American painter Edward Hopper, Jeunet utilizes the warms images, golden monochromes and blue, red and green spots to visually intensify the film’s depth of field. Sharing a common inspiration, Hopper painted many artworks in Paris between 1906 and 1910 and in particular the ‘48, rue de Lille’ series, which, with it’s use of brown shades and striking light could be likened to the indoor scenes in Jeunet’s films.
The concept of cinema drawing influence from alternate art forms is not a nouvelle method in filmmaking. Avant-garde filmmakers such as Marcel L’Herbier regularly integrated the works of artists Fernand Legar and Mallet-Stevens in his Impressionist films of the mid 1920s (Lanzoni, R F 2004: 49). However, Jeunet’s blending of painted compositions and cinematic colour schemes gave the concept a fresh perspective and as his visual style progressed with his subsequent films Amelie and A Very Long Engagement, a notable synergy between colour expressiveness and digital technology further emphasised Jeunet’s creative impact on world cinema.
The use of colour in Jeunet’s fourth feature film Amelie highlights the director’s affiliations with impressionist art and CGI. Amelie’s aesthetic form was largely inspired by a variety of styles and periods of figurative art. Described as ‘cinematic impressionism’ (Vanderschelden, I: 52) the methods of filmmaking Juenet undertook in Amelie created a fusion between digitally processed colours and distinctive techniques in Impressionist painting and though this aesthetic was developed from a visual process preceding CGI technology, it demonstrates Jeunet’s attempts to modernization French cinema technique. The role of colour in Jeunet’s films largely constitutes four basic categories devised by French University professor, author and theorist Jacque Aumont who is recognised for his studies concerning the relationship between painting and cinema. According to Aumont, colour and idealization, colour and realism, colour and subjectivity and colour and the artistic, represent the visual communication cinema has developed with colour. It is largely these divisions that relate to ‘the composition and framing of Jeunet’s images [and] that the distinctive treatment of colour in his work serves to create temporal as well as spatial perspectives’ (Vanderschelden, I: 30). Some of the colours used in Amelie that best illustrate the film’s motives are red, green and golden yellows. Red is a distinct focal point in many of the film’s frames for example, the dwarf’s hat, the sex shop, the café’s frontage, Amelie’s clothes and her flat. The subtle contrasts of red, gold and green serve to communicate the synergism of the protagonist’s realized and imagined world. Although the set pieces and costumes of Jeunet’s films demonstrate a practical utilization of colour in order to convey various themes, it is in post-production that Jeunet effectually translates his film’s key motives and his visual signature.
Amelie and Juenet’s follow up feature, A Very Long Engagement both implement a digital colour treatment to develop his stylized cinematic blend of the painted and the cinematized, the actual and the imagined. The aforesaid films are definite examples of Juenet’s post-modern filmmaking style and French cinemas transition into state-of-the-art filmmaking because due to worldwide popularity, they speed up the ‘digital revolution’ in French cinema. Enduring a ‘resistance to the Hollywood machine’ (Austin, J 2009: 9) The technology that Jeunet’s films utilized were neither an imitation ‘of Technicolour nor merely a Hollywood-style special effect’ (Everett, W 2007: 80), but rather a development in digital technology that advanced directorial control over colour processes and added new dimensions to traditional mise-en-scene and narrative themes.
Like Delicatessen, A Very Long Engagement is a film that employs experimentalist historiography and colour treatment to create a cinematic discussion of the various effects war had on France. Where Delicatessen translated the sombre atmosphere of a society (France) occupied by an evil dictator (Germany) using sombre colours, closed in sets, and a dark humour characteristic of an isolated community, A Very Long Engagement spread itself lavishly across Europe, acknowledging a larger social fabric using sepia tones, expansive landscapes and a lighter humour to address the issues of feminism, trench warfare and clashing regional identity. Though A Very Long Engagement may be more direct in its visual approach to representation of France during wartime, Jeunet purposefully injects the film with historical blunders such as technologically premature payphones (not yet available in 1920s Gare d’Orsay) and the faux German biplane (in actuality, an American Stearman biplane) circling the trenches of Bingo Crepuscule.
These intentional errors lead a critical audience to ‘ask questions and expand their horizons’ (McLaughlin, N 2010: 206) and also urges a viewer to distinguish a similar concept to the film’s protagonist, being that the pursuit of truthful answers is part of the creative process and not entirely different from the process of writing history. Through this post-modern approach to storytelling, Jeunet achieves a further thematically interactive process with an audience whilst making ‘a positive contribution toward popular conceptions and history and historical filmmaking’ (McLaughlin, N 2010: 210). Whilst A Very Long Engagement uses digital effects shots to visually translate nostalgic and historical themes, Amelie applies the technology to convey subjective point of view and metaphors. This approach designs a subtle, yet direct transference of information about the characters; their emotions, imaginations and internal responses to their observing. For example, an audience perceives how Amelie’s imagination transforms various objects such as clouds into rabbits and teddy bears. Her heartbeats are depicted in a card-like image of Sacre Couer when she sees the character Nino, and the drawings on her wall become animated as she sleeps.
These and other metaphorical instances in the film, such as Amelie’s transformation to water in the scene when Nino leaves the café, are a distinct homage to surrealist painters, the re-animated drawings by Michael Sowa on Amelie’s bedroom wall being a solid example. Considering these examples, one can easily decipher the way in which Jeunet uses digital effects to construct a cinematic impression of human observation, understanding and behaviour using an unconventional narrative style.
Jeunet’s films retain French cinema’s tradition of communicating historical, cultural, social and humanistic with a uniquely stylized visual aesthetic and narrative persuasion. His film’s challenge the current Hollywood trend of re-making because rather than sell the audience a pre-loved cinema history, Jeunet entertains and educates a world audience by re-telling his nations history. His contribution to world cinema is distinct in its progressive methods of defining human emotion, historical theme and setting as his film’s paint a picture of the past in soft nostalgic golden hues, passionate reds and harmonizing greens. In a contemporary cinema age of overblown, dollar-driven computer generated imagery and improbable environments, Jeunet has developed a style using a digital technology that recapitulates theconcept of post-modern images in French cinema and paradoxically serves to create an evocative visual style that translates a national history.
Jeunet, J P, Delicatessen 1991, Miramax.
Jeunet, J P, Amelie 2001, Miramax.
Jeunet, J P, A Very Long Engagement 2004, Warner Bros.
Ezra, E 2008, Jean-Pierre Jeunet Contemporary Film Directors, University of Illinois Press.
Lanzoni, R F 2004, French Cinema: From Its Beginning to the Present, Continuum International Publishing Group, New York.
Vanderschelden, I 2207, Amelie: Le Fabluleux Destin D’ Amelie Poulain,
I.B Tauris, London.
Austin, J 2009, Yale French Studies: New Spaces for French and Francophone Cinema, vol. 115, Yale University Press.
Everett, W 2007, Questions of Colour in Cinema: From Paintbrush to Pixel, Peter Lang Publishing, New York.
McLaughlin, N 2010, French War Films and National Identity, Cambria Press, London.