The auteur theory: contemporary cinema and director Jeunet
Updated: Jun 14, 2021
At the beginning of the fifties, just after the end of the second World War, young French critics took the distances from the traditional French cinema, looking at different and more vital productions than the French one, ‘derided as ‘le cinema de papa’ (‘Daddy’s cinema’)’ (Darke 2003, p. 423).
This change of mentality underlines that cinema was finally considered as an art form, and that it was necessary to approach it in a new way. For this reason, André Bazin and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze founded, in 1951, Les Chaiers du cinéma et de la Télévision, a monthly magazine that analyzed the performance of past and present directors to define whether they could be considered artists or not with regard to the so called ‘politique des auteurs’. This innovative approach to their works tried to individuate between all the filmmakers those who could be defined as auteur, ‘a central consciousness whose vision is inscribed in the work’ (Fabe 2014, p. 174) and ‘differentiated (...) from metteurs en scène, directors who (...) did not inscribe their individual personalities or styles onto their films’ (Fabe 2014, p. 175).
To do so, French critics who wrote for Les Chaiers used a critical method defined as mise-en-scène criticism, based on the description and analysis of the elements that constitute a shot, a scene or a film in order to find the style and the main themes of an author (Darke 2003, p.425). In this essay, it will be demonstrated that Jean- Pierre Jeunet, a contemporary French cinema director, can be considered an auteur in the meaning previously explained. Through the analysis of Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001) and Un long dimanche de fiançailles (2004), themes, personal style and narrative techniques, and issues related to authorship and freedom will be discussed.
Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain is a romantic comedy set in a fairy, postcard-like Paris. The story of an innocent but smart young women who finds her mission in helping people had a great success all over the world, ‘probably because the story is very international(...) (as) we speak about the small details of life that everybody knows, in every country’ (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2011). This film is very particular, because despite the international success and the influence from Hollywood production that can be noticed in different stylistic elements, it shows Jeunet’s personal signature, and the freedom he had in the realisation of the film. In fact, the director affirmed that ‘in France, when I make a film, I have complete (...) freedom; nobody has to explain to me nothing’ (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2011, video, YouTube).
On the other hand, Un long dimanche de fiançailles, hadn’t the same success: many critics have considered it as a sort of Amélie 2 for its extreme similarity with the previous Jeunet’s success. However, despite the stylistic similarities, the second film has a more realistic base, as it’s intertwined with the European history, as its fictional plot represents real stories which happened to the families touched by the War.
As Durham (2008, p.913) states, this film ‘is thus one at the same time a mystery, a romance, a sociological study (...) and, especially, an anti-war manifesto’. This happens because it’s an adaptation of Sébastien Japrisot’s Un long dimanche de fiançailles, which is an historical novel. However, Jeunet takes the distances from the romance, and puts his own firm on its adaptation, starting from the focus, which isn’t on the anti-war discourse, but on the love story between Mathilde and Manech. In fact, the war is shown only from the flashbacks and anecdotes, and is not central in the plot.
In both films, the first thing that surprise the audience is the image: the glossy shots, coloured with hedonistic attention, please the viewer’s eyes and introduce him in an idealized, perfect postcard-like representation of Paris and France.
Jeunet reflects on the power of images and on the sense of view, not only in the references of other films and French paintings, and not even in the idealization of France. His meditation on pictures’ force starts from a simpler level, the one of the photographs which Amélie finds under the photo booths around the city, the same level of the shots that an old soldier shows to Mathilde.
Those images have a power since they encourage a series of questions: who is that man? Why he throws away his pictures? Who are the soldiers in the photograph? Are they still alive? Moreover, these images have effects also at an higher level: in fact, they stimulate curiosity and fantasy of Amélie and Mathilde, and indirectly of the audience.
Jeunet’s attention to the shots’ construction recalls many cinema genres, that have influenced the auteur during all his career: Oscherwitz (2011), affirm that Amélie represents a French example of ‘heritage film’, defined by Higson (2003, in Oscherwitz, 2011, p.513), as a genre of films which ‘turn their back on the industrialized chaotic present... [and] offer apparently more settled and visually splendid manifestations of an essentially pastoral national identity’. Indeed, the visual elements of the films celebrate the past, with a poetic and suspended atmosphere, as well as the sounds and the music, that accompanies and completes the scenes stimulating images of a certain idea of France.
In Un long Dimanche’s inside shots, the camera indulges on the furniture, the dresses, the technological inventions of the beginning of the past century, the yellow, warm light that filters through lace curtains into countryside rooms. Nostalgia is always present: but, the memory of the past is also a secure starting point that gives the two heroines the hope, the force and the courage to go against the vicissitudes of present times and to continue their researches.
Jeunet puts a lot of effort in recreating, with images and music, this emotional atmosphere, that he personally feels when he deals with past thematics such as European history: ‘I have a big fascination for World War I, don’t ask me why. I do sometimes a joke, I say I think I died in another life during the war’ (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2017, video, YouTube).
In both films, many scenes start with an external shot, followed by an internal focalization that frames the plot and give a special sense to the story. In both cases, the heroines moves all around France and Paris; the space becomes relevant and is never put apart. It always shapes the actions, and is celebrated in its beauty as it was another character.
This attention to the location, that awarded both movies the prizes of best photography and best setting, associate Jeunet’s style with the ‘cinema du look’ genre, “characterized by sleek, colourful urban settings, a high degree of artifice, and a celebration of the visual and sensory elements of the filmic text”’ (Orlando 2010, p.86). Jeunet’s brilliance is in the capacity of recreate places, atmospheres, dramatic feelings with artistic images made up with pastel colours (Amélie) or warm and sepia colours in contrast with cold shades (Un long Dimanche) that immerge the audience in the setting.
The two films are an example of pastiche, as there are a lot of references to French artists, films, books and poems. Baudelaire, Zola and many others are cited in Un long Dimanche, while in Amélie Montmartre as a setting recalls Les Quatre-cent coups by Truffaut, as well as the title seems to be borrowed by Guitry’s ‘Le Destin fabuleux de Désirée Clary’ (Oscherwitz 2011, p.506), and the fantasy elements prosecute le cinema fantastique born with Méliès. Moreover, the glossy and unrealistic Paris remembers with its colours Impressionist paintings.
Finally, the focus on human nature in its simplicity and immediacy might recalls the Nouvelle Vague’ s interest for the exploration of reality; in fact, despite Jeunet’s movies contain fantasy elements, they also have a realistic base. The discourses between Mathilde and her uncles, their actions in the countryside’s home, the hopes of Amélie, sex, imagination, voyages: all these things characterize humanity, despite Jeunet represents them in a poetical way rather than showing them in a non constructed way as in the Nouvelle vague films. All these citations honour the French national identity, to which Jeunet feels very bound, and give to the films a local base. But the pastiche is also inside the plot: for example, in Amélie is represented by the false letter addressed to Madelaine, or by the mix of images in the videotapes that Amélie gives to the painter Dufayel (Oscherwitz 2011, p.509-510).
Jeunet’s personal style is remarkable also in the experimental and humorous language, which uses widely proverbs, supernatural tests and words with a strange sound (Bingo Crépuscule; Pois chiche, ‘chickpeas’; je touche du bois, ‘touch the wood’) , and in the presence of technological devices and mechanical invention, of which the auteur is a passionate admirer. Videotapes, letters written with pieces of newspapers, telephone, sunglasses with guns,... These objects connect the characters, over time and space, as Dominique Bretodeau’s box and the love letter for Madeleine from her ‘husband’ in Amélie, or the five soldiers’ belongings in Un long Dimanche de fiançailles. Finally, Jeunet expresses himself as an auteur also in the plot, especially in his interest for the stories of unpredictable wise women.
Women with an uncommon ability for independent actions and thoughts, imagination and determination, whose lives intertwines with other stories, both fictional and real, and whose identity is a mix of ingenuity and naivety.
An auteur has total control on his films: Jeunet’s ability in recreating real stories, settings and atmospheres, quiet suspended times, noises, dirt and discomfort of the front, fear, joy, curiosity dives the audience in a dramatic and spectacular fictional France, poetically presented by a narrator, as at the beginning and the end of every fairy tale, and elevates the director to the status of artist. His own style and preferences are continuously present in all his films, and the freedom he has in the writing and the realisation of his works makes him the ‘central consciousness whose vision is inscribed in the work’ of which Fabe (2014, p. 174) talks about.
Darke, C 2003, ‘The French new wave’, in Nelmes, J (ed.), An introduction to film studies/, Routledge, London, pp. 422-450, via UniSa Library eReadings
Fabe, M 2014, ‘Auteur Theory and the French New Wave: François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows’, Closely Watched Films : An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film Technique, University of California press, ProQuest Ebook Central
Durham, C 2008, ‘Auteurism and Adaptation in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Un long Dimanche de fiançailles’, The French Review, Vol. 81, No. 5, American Association of Teachers of French, pp. 912-927
Orlando, V 2010, ‘A review of “Jean-Pierre Jeunet”’, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 28:1, pp. 86-91
Oscherwitz, D 2011, ‘Once Upon a Time that Never Was: Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain"’ (2001), The French Review, Vol. 84, No. 3, pp. 504-515
Jeunet, J (dir.) 2001, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, streaming video, Canal +
Jeunet, J (dir.) 2004, Un long dimanche de fiançailles, streaming video, Canal +
MEDIADeskUK, 2011, Jean-Pierre Jeunet - MEDIA interview, video, YouTube, 20 October, viewed 20 September 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ukTd3BIDoU
FilMagicians, 2017, A Very Long Engagement - Interview with Audrey Tautou & Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2004), video, YouTube, 26 May, viewed 20 September 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPYjQu2RO6M