The French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a conjurer of whimsical visions for the big screen, like his most beloved work, “Amélie.” But for his first movie in nearly a decade, “Bigbug,” out Friday, he chose to work with Netflix.
This retro-futuristic comedy, which debuted Friday, is set in 2045, when artificial intelligence facilitates most quotidian tasks but also threatens mankind. Featuring Jeunet’s signature irreverence and colorful mise en scène, “Bigbug” follows an ensemble cast of offbeat characters and their domestic robots, confined to a technologically advanced home by the malevolent androids that now rule the world. Together they must find a way out.
Jeunet considers it a cynical entry in an oeuvre that includes “Delicatessen” (1991), about a murderous landlord and his tenants in a postapocalyptic reality, and “The City of Lost Children” (1995), a steampunk fantasy centering on a mad scientist who steals children’s dreams.
Speaking shortly before the recent Oscar nominations, the director, 68, said that two decades later it still pains him that “Amélie” didn’t win any of the five Academy Awards it was up for in 2002.
He said he believed the academy shut out his film over the producer Harvey Weinstein’s awards campaign tactics. “It was a punishment, not for me but for him,” he said. “But this was our year! That is a trophy I would have liked to have.”
Jeunet was speaking from his home in Paris. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Were you thinking about the dystopias of your earlier films, like “The City of Lost Children” and “Delicatessen,” when you were writing “Bigbug”?
I used to say this was “Delicatessen 2.0.” No, the concept was to make a cheap movie, because all my films are very expensive and I was looking for something with a single set, like “Delicatessen.” It was a concept to write a story with people stuck in a room and it was created before Covid, which is funny. We wrote this story during the shooting of “The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet” [about a boy genius on a cross-country journey]. I’m sure you don’t know about it.
I actually have seen it.
Oh, you saw it! Cool, because Harvey Weinstein did everything he could to kill that movie. [Laughs] Have you seen it in 3-D?
Yes, it played in a couple theaters in 3-D in 2015. I remember it took a long time to be released in the U.S.
I know, because he didn’t care. I refused to modify the film. Of course he wanted to re-edit, but now it’s fun to imagine him in jail. [Laughs]
Can you elaborate on what happened with Harvey Weinstein on that film?
He told me, “We will do something better than with ‘Amélie.’ I promise.” But when after some test screenings he was like a gallery owner saying to the painter, “We’re going to modify the green because in U.S. we don’t like green. I will ask the framer to put some blue instead.” I refused. I said, “I won’t change one frame.” So he punished me like he punished everybody. He wanted to do that with “Amélie” as well, but he couldn’t because it was such a success. He never touched a thing.
Your films often feature mechanical gadgets. “Bigbug” has a lot of robots that were physically built.
I love to imagine these objects because I get to keep them. I don’t know if it’ll be possible with Netflix. I hope so. Two years ago, a beautiful exhibition of props from our movies in Paris and in Lyon had 180,000 admissions. I was waiting for money for “Bigbug” and nobody wanted to produce it. But yes, it was such a pleasure to imagine the robots, especially Einstein [a mechanical bust resembling the physicist]. He had 82 motors inside to move.
Thinking of how “Bigbug” presents technology, are you afraid of the future or what the future may hold for humanity?
I am just curious, because I am not young and I would like to live to see what will be the next gadget, the next iPhone, the next GPS. Maybe there will be more drama, maybe nothing. Maybe the earth will disappear like in “Don’t Look Up.” I’m curious more than afraid. If I had kids, maybe I would be more scared about the future.
What do you believe it says about the future of our flawed species?
I hate messages. But if there is a message in “Bigbug” it is that artificial intelligence will never kill human beings because they will stay stupid. They don’t have a soul. They try to have a sense of humor, but they don’t understand anything. [Laughs]
Why do you think it was difficult to find the funds to produce “Bigbug”?
Because in France, when you have something original you’re [expletive]. It was the case with “Delicatessen.” The same for “Amélie.” It was too weird, too quirky, as you say in English. With Netflix it was kind of a dream. They wrote me and said, “Do you have something?” And I said, “Yes, I have a film, but in France nobody likes it. You won’t like it.” [Laughs] They told me, “Send it.” Twenty-four hours later it was greenlighted!
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Did you consider the fact that it will be streaming but not in theaters?
Yes, but I have to admit I am pretty relieved because waiting for the first day in theaters, it’s so depressing. If it doesn’t do well enough in the first three days, you go to less and less theaters. With Netflix, half a billion people can see it. [Officially Netflix has some 220 million subscribers.] So even if just 1 percent of those people watch “Bigbug,” it would be huge. Also, I don’t go often to the cinema because I don’t like to have young people beside me eating popcorn or playing with their iPhone or texting. It drives me crazy. I start yelling in the theater, so I prefer to watch films at home on a big plasma screen or with my projector.
Last year “Amélie” turned 20. What do you think about the legacy of the film?
That it continues! There was a new release in Germany and Belgium, and Sony [Pictures] Classics bought it now for the U.S. They’re going to do something with it, but of course, it’s not good timing with Covid. [The distributor confirmed that it plans to rerelease the movie.] At the Cannes Film Festival last year, for example, we showed the film on the beach with a big screen and it was free. They had 800 seats and they warned me, “It’s raining today. Probably we won’t have a lot of people.” It was packed. They had to turn people away. Sometimes I think, “I am dead and I am in paradise and everybody is playing a character.” [Laughs]
A few years ago you said that you were thinking of making a documentary about the making of “Amélie.” Is that still happening?
Another disappointment because nobody wanted to produce it. It would have been so funny because I wanted to make fun of myself in it. It was going to be cheap to make but they said it’s risky. So I gave up. If I had proposed a serious documentary about “Amélie,” they would want to produce it.
You also published a book of anecdotes in 2018 from the making of “Amélie.”
It’s only available in French. If someone reading your article is interested for it in the U.S., my brother, the publisher, would be very happy. [Laughs] It’s between 500 and 600 small memories. It’s like when you eat candies, you cannot stop. If you saw “Amélie” you know I am very good at remembering things. I have a very bad memory for bad things, but for the good stuff, anecdotes and funny stories, I am very good.
There was also a stage version of “Amélie.” Do you have any thoughts on that?
I hate musicals. I accepted the money to save kids, but that’s the only reason. I support an organization that provides open-heart surgeries for children. In the end I think it wasn’t very good. It was a disaster on Broadway. [Laughs]