Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Class: Amélie

Tartelettes d'artichauts et tomates (Artichoke & Tomato Tartlets)
Chaud Salade de Lentilles Vertes Françaises (Warm French Green Lentil Salad)
Poulet Roti avec pommes de terre (French Style Roast Chicken with Potatoes)
Endives au Gratin façon Café des Deux Moulins
Maple-Pumpkin Crème Brûlée

Okay, so if you've been following this blog at all, you'll know I recently spent 10 days in Paris. (Here are a couple of pictures I took of locations from Amélie.)

I had a great time, meeting with writer Claire Dixsaut who has written several food/movie cookbooks, including one on James Bond and food. So we went to see Skyfall together - she also took me out for some fabulous food and drinks. I also met up with a friend's cousin, the darling French-Moroccan documentary filmmaker Izza Génini, who recently had a retrospective of her films in Tel Aviv.

In addition to eating some wonderful food, hearing some real Manouche music, seeing art, I just enjoyed walking everywhere and meeting some wonderful folks who have become good friends.

So this is part one of a Paris, France film double bill; the next will be first be posted over at the Criterion website.

I have to say tonight's class was awesome. Great crowd. Everyone raved about the dessert, which is the featured recipe below. As always, I couldn't do it without the great staff at Central Market.

As you can see in the box above, the next class will be February 23rd, and I'll be covering the Oscar-winning film Once with a four-course Irish/Czech menu. Tickets will go on sale in a couple of weeks, please check back. Hope you can make it.

Amélie is available for purchase and streaming @ Amazon and is home rentable from NetFlix.


"These are hard times for dreamers."

I think the quote above from the movie does well to sum up not just some of the themes of the film, but also the making of the film. It also works as an expression of, if we go back to the time when it was released (in the US just a few months after 9/11), how beloved the film became in America. The world had just begun to descend into a pretty dark period and audiences needed a "good dream" to distract and uplift them.

But Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the co-writer and director of Amélie said he doesn't believe this quote to be representative of his world view. "I'm kind of a dreamer. And I'm paid for it," he laughed. "This line was more an allusion to The Night of the Hunter where it's once said, that 'Times are getting hard for children.'" (The actual quote from The Night of the Hunter is, "It's a hard world for little things." But he doesn't go on to elaborate why he alludes to The Night of the Hunter in Amélie - and I have thought of no connection. So whatever....)

In reading interviews with Jeunet, he always sounded amazed and often delirious over the success and impact this movie has had around the world. He never dreamed it would connect with audiences at such a level. "We wanted to get a smile from the audience, and this was the case, but we did not expect such success," he said. "It was just a very small film, and it was risky because I knew I was going to talk about generosity and it's a risk, because today it is more fashionable to speak about violence." And in almost every interview, he's said something like this, "For some time now, I'm sure I'm dead and dreaming," or, "I wanted to make a light-hearted film, a film that makes people dream...."

"I think it's been such a big success because it makes you happy," stated the film's star Audrey Tautou. "It's positive. It makes you dream - and we need that. There aren't many French films like that."

Dreams, in fact, played a big part in the creation and making of this movie. For example, when Jeunet first moved to Paris he lived near a center for the blind. ""I would always see blind people walking around the neighborhood, and I always wanted to go quietly up behind one of them, describe all the wonderful things around them that they couldn't see, then walk away. But I was too scared. So Amélie gets to do that for me," he said, and adding elsewhere, "What Amélie does to the grocer, I dreamed of doing it to a film critic who treated [an earlier film he co-made with Marc Caro] The City of Lost Children like sh!t. Now, it's maybe because of him those scenes exist [in Amélie]...."

The stories and notions that eventually became Amélie began about 25 years before the movie was even conceived. "[W]hen I arrived in Paris in 1974," he recalled, "I began to do some notes in my notebook and I did a kind of collection of these positive stories, memories, stories I heard. Almost everything is true – not the garden gnome, but I heard this story 200 times. But almost all stories are true. For example, the story of the goldfish, that's my story. The story of the photobook, a friend of mine did this collection. The real book exists. It's a masterpiece. I'm not kidding. We did a fake one for the film, because we would have had to get the authorization [for all the photos]." The story of the kid with the marbles was something he said he witnessed one day when he was back in grade school. All these stories, both heard and experienced found there way into his notebook.

"I admit Amélie is me!” he has often declared. “I had all these notes, anecdotes and short stories I had been collecting since childhood and I was trying to find a way of bringing them altogether.”

Besides all these notes and stories, Jeunet has a bit of an obsession with cataloging the things he likes and dislikes. "I do some lists every day: new things I hate, things I love. I know it by heart, this game," he explained. "If you say, 'I love peanuts,' it is not interesting. You have to find the feeling. And I've wanted for a long time to use this game to present characters in a feature, and I did. But that's my own list. I distributed it [amongst] the characters. I chose the best one for each character, to define the characters, like I love to put my hands in the sacks of grains." In fact, Jeunet made a 1989 short film about his loves/hates, starring his favorite actor Dominique Pinon - which you can watch (with English subtitles) here.

Jeunet had begun working on a screenplay for this unnamed new film even before he took a detour and moved to Los Angeles for 20 months to direct Alien: Resurrection. "I had 100 different small details, like crumbs, but I needed to find the main story. I was a looking for a long time. Months and months before and after Alien," he said.

"It wasn’t easy to find the concept," he explained. "To write one script with 200 stories was a real mess, believe me. I spent a lot of time to find the concept. In fact, the story of the woman helping other people was just one small story in the middle, and after awhile, one morning — I don’t know why — it was in front of me; I understood, ‘Oh, this is the center of the film.’ At this time, everything was easy to write — easy to find the money, easy to shoot."

Actually, it wasn't that easy at all. He wrote 18 drafts of the script with his longtime co-writer Guillaume Laurant, before storyboarding the entire film. And the money wasn't so easily found either. The original producers didn't really get the script and felt he needed to cut a lot out to make it financially viable for them. Jeunet didn't want to do that and they dropped the project. Thankfully, the next company he showed it to (UGC) fell in love with it and signed on immediately.

Another point when it almost crashed was that in writing the script Jeunet had envisioned one particular actress in the role - the English actress Emily Watson. In fact, Emily/Amélie, is how the character (and movie) got her name. "We met and she liked the script," Jeunet said. "We had several more meetings in Paris and London. We did readings in French and I realized that she would lose fifty percent of her talent that way, so I rewrote a version that began in England: the heroine grew up there before moving to Montmartre... she was still game. On the first day of pre-production, I get a call at home. It was Emily Watson calling to tell me that she had decided, for personal reasons, not to do the film."

"We [then] rewrote the script in order for it to take place entirely in Montmartre. And the name stayed. Except that Emily became Amélie," he continued. "I began casting in France and one day, as I walked past a poster, I was struck by a pair of dark eyes, a flash of innocence, an unusual demeanor: it was Audrey Tautou on the poster for Vénus Beauté [the film she had just co-starred in]. I set up a meeting. She tried on the part. After ten seconds, I knew she was the one." (I should note that in some interviews he's said Tautou was first person he saw for the part after Watson dropped out and in other interviews he claims she was the second.)

Elsewhere, he added a more personal story about when he first tested Tautou, "When you look for the main character and when she or he is in front of you, that's the best moment when you make a film. It's so emotional. I remember I was hiding behind the camera because I cried."

As for his favorite actor, Dominique Pinon, Jeunet said, "There was no way I was going to make a film without Dominique. At first, there was no part in Amélie that was big enough for him, so I wanted to give him a cameo. But instead, he chose to play the obsessively jealous character at the café." But Jeunet told him, "'You know Dominique, [the role is] not very good.' But in the end," he admitted, "if the character is funny it's because Dominique is good, not because the character is good."

Perhaps the greatest challenge for Jeunet was shooting on location. Again, it was about "dreams." He decided early on that the film would take place in the district he lives in, Montmartre (see Background & Context section below). But he had never shot a film entirely on location before. "It would be very expensive to have remade Montmartre in the studio, as you can imagine," he said. "It was my first time but it was pretty interesting. I did a lot of location scouting myself and it was a game to get a Paris like on a soundstage, a dream Paris; I worked a lot for that." (See my previous post with pics from my Paris trip - the Cafe des Deux Moulins and the grocery store.)

For example, the brief shot where Amélie is standing under a passing train overhead, Jeunet went to every train overpass in Paris, twice, until he chose the one he wanted. "I tried to control everything. I am a control freak," he admitted. "Maybe the reason is because I did some animation in the beginning [of my career]. And I talked about that with Terry Gilliam, and he thought the same thing that when you've done some animation, you want to make everything yourself. You want to control everything."

"[B]ecause I stayed 20 months in Los Angeles," he explained elsewhere, "and you know Los Angeles is not a real city. It's a place, a kind of place. And you are on the road, when you are very far away from your country, your country seems so nice, you know. So when I came back I wanted to show to the French people how Paris could be nice. And I did this fake Paris. It was a joke at the beginning when I talk about the dog sh!t on the streets – but it's true. It's fake Paris and we worked a lot to get this fake Paris. For example, we got rid of all the cars, because when you see old pictures from the 40's, the streets are almost empty and we tried to get this kind of thing. And we changed the posters in the streets. And sometimes we changed the sky in digital when it was too white.

"And sometimes it wasn't easy because sometimes the weather was bad, especially in Paris. And sometimes French people are pretty mean – believe me. I remember one time, a guy parked his car just in front of the camera and he told me, 'I f@ck the cinema.' I had to wait for one hour" for him to leave so they could resume filming.

"From the weather, to the traffic, to the people crossing the frame, we were really unlucky," the film's cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, admitted. "We shot in May and there was 20 days of rain. It was just awful, every morning it was just coming on the set and it was raining and what are we going to do? So we had to use some tricks. For example, when Amélie is stepping out of her building and there is fog. But there is no fog in Paris, almost never. So it was a trick because the background was terrible from the rain so much. So he really hated shooting outside. 'I don't want to shoot anymore on location,' [Jeunet] said. And I'm quite sure he won't."

Back when Jeunet was in pre-production, he found two painters who would influence the visual look of the film - Brazilian Machado Juarez and German Michael Sowa.

"Jean-Pierre showed me a lot of paintings and we watched films together, and the main one was a painter whose name is Machado," Delbonnel said, "because this painter is using a lot of red and green – but there is always in one space of the painting another color. Because if you have patina which is like red and green, just to agree with the painting you have bring in another color which is different. Usually, there is blue in his painting, just a point of blue or yellow, very bright, or even white. So the painting looks very [balanced]. And we used this a lot.... So every time we could bring some blue – it was not in every shot, of course, because otherwise it looks systematic. But we were very concerned to have all kind of colors in the movie." Jeunet has often said he was seeking for Amélie an "explosion of color" in every scene.

Jeunet had long been a fan of Michael Sowa's children's books. The paintings that appear above Amélie's bed and the animated pig light stand are Sowa's.

In addition to the two painters, Jeunet has said his one major outside influence for Amélie were the poems of Jacques Prévert. "I don't normally like poetry, just this guy. He is amazing and I read again everything again just before shooting the film." Film lovers probably recognize Prévert as the screenwriter of Les enfants du paradis (The Children of Paradise), however he is generally known for his poetry.

And while he has often expressed a dislike of the French New Wave era of the 1960's in general, Jeunet has also professed a love for the films of François Truffaut. In fact, there is a clip from Truffaut's Jules & Jim in the opening of Amélie, and later there are two homages to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups), which was also shot in the Montmartre district of Paris. "[T]he same actress who plays the mother of Jean-Pierre Leaud in [The] 400 Blows, Claire Maurier, is the owner of the cafe. And you have a lot of pigeons. There is an amazing shot of pigeons in [The] 400 Blows when the two kids are running on the street, and I did that in this film," Jeunet noted.

With the film shot and post-production done, Jeunet did some test screenings (which he credits his experience in LA with learning about) and used those audiences' responses to tweak the picture. The film was then famously rejected to play the Cannes Film Festival, but Jeunet has said, it was maybe a good thing because it gained the film some sympathy before it was even released. When it then arrived in cinemas, critics and audiences in France fell in love with it. And when it came to America, as noted above, not long after 9/11, it seemed to serve as a welcome escape from the recent tragedy (this was before the country suddenly hated the French for a while).

With its international success (though a few critics didn't buy into its dream/fantasy), Jeunet was overwhelmed by the letters and emails he received from people around the globe. "I must have gotten 500 or 600 letters. It was really touching. Sympathetic letters, thank-you notes, sometimes sad ones - lonely people recognizing themselves in Amélie - and also really creative letters," he explained.

"Sometimes, I got mail from people who had lost a family member like Amélie, who wanted to meet with me - really sad stuff. I never experienced such gestures before. With Alien, I received some letters, but nothing like this."

Elsewhere, he added, "There was one person who said he was secretly cutting the grass of the old lady who lived across the street from him. And I have a letter from a girl who said that she sat next to a blind woman on the bus and described everything she saw out the window. Such things are now happening all over Paris. Oh, it's great."

Amongst the many international awards it won - in France, Amélie took the Best Film, Best Director, Best Original Music, and Best Production Design Cesar awards. In the US, it was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film, Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Best Sound but lost in all categories.

Jeunet is currently at work on a new film, The Young and Prodigious Spivet, based on the novel by Reif Larson about a 12-year old mapmaker and his adventures.


"In this bizarre land swarmed a host of colorful artists, writers, painters, musicians, sculptors, architects, a few with their own places but most in furnished lodgings, surrounded by the workers of Montmartre, the starchy ladies of the rue Bréda, the retired folk of Batignolles, sprouting up all over the place, like weeds. Montmartre was home to every kind of artist." - writer Félicien Champsaur, 1882.

"[T]hese words [by Champsaur] describe the diverse audience of the Chat Noir, a cabaret that epitomized the raucous and irreverent popular entertainment for which the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre was known," wrote Nichole Myers of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Artists, intellectuals, and writers flocked to this bohemian district, frequenting its vibrant performance halls and celebrating them in their paintings, literature, and poems. But while Montmartre's popularity as a brash amusement district reached dizzying heights in the 1890s, the area itself had rather humble beginnings. Perched atop a hill to the north of Paris's city center, Montmartre was initially a rural village dotted with vineyards and windmills."

Though not so humble of a story is how the area got its name. According to the myth, Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris and victim of anti-Christian persecution, was decapitated around 250 AD, but by some miracle, was guided by angels, headless - though carrying his head - to the top of the hill where he then laid down to rest and was buried. The mount, until then called the "Mount of Mars" or the "Mount of Mercury", eventually took the name "Mount of Martyrs," then shortened simply to Montmartre.

Cine 13, a mini-cinema in Montmartre - run by director Claude Lelouch

"It was in this area—Van Gogh's 'petits boulevards' — that young avant-garde artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901), Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Émile Bernard (1868–1941), and Louis Anquetin (1861–1932) lived and worked," continued Myers. "A long-established center of local amusement, the 'butte' featured working-class dance halls such as the Moulin de la Galette, whose iconic double windmills became the first architectural symbol of Montmartre's bohemian culture.

"Replacing the Latin Quarter as the locus of the city's intellectual and artistic community, Montmartre boasted a thriving bohemian culture that was driven by its critique of decadent society. Its raucous café-concerts and cabarets featured satires and crude, often subversive, performances that mocked the Third Republic's bourgeois morality and increasingly corrupt politics. Cabarets and café-concerts were favorite spots for avant-garde artists such as Degas, who sought to capture their celebrated performers, hazy atmospheres, and artificial stage lighting in his paintings, pastels, and prints

Less known is that after World War II Montmartre became the center of an African-American expat community of artists and musicians, who moved there to escape racism in America. A documentary, Harlem in Montmartre chronicles the story, which you can watch a preview of here.

But, as travel writer Matt Barrett noted in his blog: "Montmartre is talked about by Parisians the way New Yorkers talk about the Village: It's not what it used to be, It's like Disneyland, the artists can't afford to live here anymore, too many tourists etc." If you just follow the typical tourist path, he continued, you will "follow the herd instinct and stampede your way up the famous hill, take a picture of yourself on the steps of the basilica, buy an overpriced crepe at the Place du Tertre, get conned into having your portrait sketched, and walk back down clutching newly bought key-rings, postcards, gaudy T-shirts feeling a little mystified about what all the fuss is about." He offers up a less typical route you can walk and enjoy visiting the area without feeling like a mark.

Now Jeunet lives in Montmartre, and has for some time. He particularly enjoyed that he could just crawl out of bed and walk a block or two to where they were shooting Amélie, though he noted, "I chose [the] Montmartre neighborhood I know well since I lived there, but it's like all stores are ugly and dog droppings [everywhere]." But he hasn't moved and supposedly can be regularly spotted at the Cafe des Deux Moulins (where Amélie worked in the film).

"Now [since the movie] there is even more life on the streets of Montmartre," Jeunet said. "Before it came out, the owner of the cafe where Amélie works, the Deux Moulins, was going to sell it. Now, it's so crowded, he'll never sell.... The flats have gotten more expensive, too. All my neighbors tell me it's my fault."


Amélie has no boyfriend. She’s tried once or twice, but the results were a letdown. Instead, she cultivates a taste for small pleasures: dipping her hand into sacks of grain, cracking crème brûlée with a teaspoon, and skipping stones at St. Martin’s canal.”

There are two items on the class menu taken from this one quote. First, we have the lentil salad (in the film, we see Amélie run her hand through a sack of lentils during this line) and, of course, the crème brûlée, for which I decided to go seasonal and make one with maple and pumpkin flavors.

For the other two dishes, first we have the artichoke & tomato tartlets, which comes from the line in the film by Amélie to the grocer: "At least you'll never be a vegetable - even artichokes have hearts."

The roast chicken and potatoes are from Mr. Dominique Bretodeau - "who goes out to buy a chicken. Usually, he cooks it in the oven with baked potatoes. After cutting off the legs, the breast and the wings, he'll clean up the bones with his fingers, starting with the oyster. No, Bretodeau won't buy a chicken today. He won't go any further than that telephone booth."

And the endives au gratin is the only dish ordered by someone at the Cafe des Deux Moulins in the movie. And that's how we get the menu.

Now, as for the history of crème brûlée, you get to choose the location - one out of three, though all may have developed independently of each other.

1. England - in 1879, at Trinity College at Cambridge, a custard with a burnt topping, to be known as "Trinity Burnt Cream," was created.

2. France - the crème brûlée first appears in print in 1691, but originally had a crisp sugar disc placed on top of the custard.

3. Spain - there it is known as crema Catalana or crema cremada ('Burnt cream'), made in the Catalan region around the 1700's.

Here in the United States, crème brûlée was beloved by Thomas Jefferson (whom, in previous posts, I have noted also popularized on our shores many foods we still love - such as pickles, ice cream, french fries, and macaroni & cheese.) There's even a book about Jefferson (and his slave cook whom he had sent to train in France), entitled Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America.

So that's that. I'll be back with part two of our French double bill shortly. Until then, as always.. cook, watch, eat & enjoy!

Maple-Pumpkin Crème Brûlée
Click Here for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 4

1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
5 egg yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup pumpkin puree (not spiced pumpkin pie filling)
1 pinch salt
2 teaspoons maple syrup
4 teaspoons brown sugar
4 teaspoons maple sugar

Boil a pot of water for baking the custards. Reserve.

Preheat oven to 350*F degrees.

In a medium saucepan, heat cream, pumpkin spice, and cinnamon, stirring occasionally, just until steaming. You’ll see tiny bubbles around the edge of the pan. Immediately turn off the heat and set aside to infuse at least 15 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, then add in order - both sugars, vanilla, pumpkin puree, and salt until smooth and blended.

Gradually pour the hot cream into pumpkin mixture (you have to do this slowly and continually whisk as you do - so as not to cook the egg).

Divide the mixture among 4 6-ounce (or 8-ounce) ramekins and place in a large baking pan. Add the boiling water to fill the pan no more than halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Place in the center of the oven, and cook between 25-35 minutes, depending on your oven. When ready, custards should be set around the edges and centers are still jiggly like jello.

Remove ramekins (CAREFULLY - you got hot water there!) to a wire rack and let cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours (or up to 3 days).

When ready to serve, mix the maple syrup, brown and maple sugar (you can also just use brown sugar x2) in a small bowl. Then evenly spoon each custard with the sugar/maple mix.

Using a culinary torch, hold the torch 4 to 5 inches from the sugar, maintaining a slow and even motion. Stop torching just before the desired degree of doneness is reached, as the sugar will continue to cook for a few seconds after flame has been removed.

If you don't have a torch, place ramekins 6 inches below the broiler for 4 to 6 minutes or until sugar bubbles and turns golden brown.

Refrigerate at least 10 minutes (and no more than 1 hour) before serving.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Official Website
Examples of Jeunet's Storyboards for Amélie
The Making of Amélie Video
Jean-Pierre Jeunet Interview @ YouTube
Interview with Mathieu Kassovitz @ The Guardian UK
A Tour of Amélie Film Locations @ Inspired by Amélie Blog

Amélie DVD/Blu-Ray/Streaming
Amélie: Original Soundtrack Recording CD/MP3
Michael Sowa - Prints, Calendars, Books & Puzzles
Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America

1 comment:

  1. Hey Ron it's Josh. As always excellent class my friend. Natalie is looking forward to the Once class in February so we will be seeing you soon.