Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Wes Anderson – crossed orbits?

While watching Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest directorial effort – The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet – it struck me that Jeunet can be considered Europe’s equivalent to Wes Anderson. Both directors’ films are lovingly prepared confections flavored with equal measures of whimsy and irony, topped off with exquisite set design and meticulously planned Rube Goldberg-like sequences.

To be precise, it is Anderson who should be described as America’s answer to Jeunet, since Jeunet came first – he had already cemented his reputation with Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995) by the time Anderson released his debut film Bottle Rocket in 1996. In fact, their paths converged at the 2002 Oscars, when they competed for Best Original Screenplay – Jeunet for Amelie and Anderson for The Royal Tenenbaums.

Like all good auteurs, their films also feature a returning roster of actors. Anderson has Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. I think Owen Wilson particularly, is still employed only because of the good graces of Wes Anderson and Ben Stiller! Jeunet has had the lovable rubber-faced rogue Dominique Pignon in all his films and various other actors who are not really household names outside their native France. He also tends to work with the same crew, like Herve Schneid the film editor and Aline Bonetto the production designer.

My sense that Jeunet and Anderson are two sides of the same film-making coin was subsequently reinforced when I read that Reif Larsen, the author of the book on which T.S. Spivet is loosely based, actually named both Anderson and Jeunet in a list of 6 directors that he handed over to his agent (the other directors on that list were Alfonso Cuaron, Michel Gondry, Guillermo del Toro and Tim Burton…smart man, this Larsen). Larsen was assured that his book was good, but not THAT good to attract this sort of directing talent. He was overjoyed that his agent was proven wrong when Jeunet reached out and offered to make the movie.

Sadly, it appears that the stocks of these two film makers are moving in opposite directions since 2002.

Jeunet’s follow-up to the multi-award winning Amelie was the World War I love saga A Very Long Engagement, and was considered a respectable effort garnering Cesar nominations for Best Film, Director and Screenplay. But since then, he has directed only 2 films – Micmacs (2009) and T.S. Spivet (2013) – both of which landed on awards lists and box office charts with the quietest of thuds. In fact, T.S. Spivet failed to even find a distributor for North America, a travesty in an age when all sorts of foreign films are able to find a market in the US.

Anderson on the other hand, has been more prolific and barring the relative misfire of A Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), has churned out a Lifetime Achievement Award-worthy body of work that includes The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel (nominated for 9 Oscars this year). Anderson himself has personally has picked up 6 Oscar nominations during this 13 year stretch.

Therein lies the rub, for me. I actually prefer Mr. Jeunet’s films to Mr. Anderson’s, although I must admit, that jinx has been broken with Budapest Hotel which ranks as one of my top films of 2014 and with repeat viewings, may actually enter my ever-expanding list of all-time favourite films!

Nevertheless, I hold out hope that Jeunet (who is 61) will enjoy further critical and commercial success; who else could create scenes such as these…


Pierce Brown’s Red Rising fails to impress

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Having reached the half-way point of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, I have to say I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. The book has been on the several critics’ ‘must read’ lists and has also fared well with readers on Goodreads and Amazon after it was published 12 months ago.

The building blocks of the story sound familiar: a teenage protagonist, a dystopian future society with a ruling class and a downtrodden worker class, plenty of suffering, violence and death. The book clearly caters to the same audience that made bestsellers out of The Hunger Games, Divergent, Wool and Maze Runner series. On the surface, even Harry Potter is built around the same standard Bildungsroman novel structure. With stories as derivative as these, there is not much that the writer can offer in terms of originality, so all one can hope for are appealing characters and fast-paced action, delivered through elegant writing. This is exactly what the Harry Potter books have in superabundance and therefore distinguishes them from all the other pretenders. Sadly, none of these characteristics exist at any level of significance in Pierce Brown’s book.

I must credit Mr. Brown for trying to create a distinct dialect of English for a Mars-based futuristic society, but with the entire story being told in the first person by the protagonist Darrow, it makes for very difficult reading. Strike one for elegant writing.

When it comes to the characters, of course it is normal to have a one or two irritating characters for the protagonist to deal with…who usually become staunch allies later on in the books. Think of Hermione in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or much further back to The White Mountains, a wonderful dystopian YA novel from 1967 (before the term Young Adult existed) where thirteen-year-old Will is forced to go on the run with his hated cousin Henry – in both cases, the irritating companion soon becomes a trusted companion. In Red Rising however, all of Darrow’s allies are focused on using him as a tool to overthrow the ruling class Golds, so friendship and likeability really don’t enter the equation. Strike two for appealing characters.

And as for pace, there is indeed a lot happening, but mostly it just seems tedious rather than breathless. For example, there are pages devoted to the excruciating physical modifications Darrow must undergo in order to infiltrate the Gold society. After a while, I just couldn’t be bothered and felt like skipping paragraphs so I could get to the part where he actually does some infiltrating. Strike three for fast-paced action.

So, I am just going to grind through this book somehow and will not bother to read the sequel Golden Son which has just been released. I am facing similar issues trying to read the much touted Rick Yancey YA novel The 5th Wave. With both these books jumping on to the Hollywood production line, one hopes that the movie rises above the limitations of the books, much as Lionsgate has done with The Hunger Games franchise.