Three years ago, the whimsical French comedy "Amélie" was a surprise hit worldwide. Now, its writer/director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and its saucer-eyed star Audrey Tautou...

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Three years ago, the whimsical French comedy “Amélie” was a surprise hit worldwide. Now, its writer/director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and its saucer-eyed star Audrey Tautou, are collaborating again, on a very different kind of film — 13 years in the making.

In 1991, Jeunet read Sébastien Japrisot’s novel “A Very Long Engagement,” about a young woman’s desperate search, over a period of years, for the fiancé who may have died in no-man’s-land during World War I. He was dazzled by it.

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“I couldn’t put it down before the ending,” said Jeunet, in Seattle last month. In the many years between reading the book and finally making the film, he said, “it was the only book I ever wanted to adapt.”

Jeunet usually writes his own original screenplays, which have included “Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children” as well as “Amélie.” (He often works with collaborator Guillaume Laurant, who contributed to “A Very Long Engagement.”) And when he finally got the rights to “A Very Long Engagement” after many years, the writing process proved not as difficult as he anticipated. Adapting an already existing story, he said, is nothing compared with creating something original.

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“A Very Long Engagement,”
with Audrey Tautou. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, from a screenplay by Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant, based on a novel by Sébastien Japrisot. Rated R for violence and sexuality. In French with English subtitles. Opens Friday at the Egyptian. See Friday’s MovieTimes for showtimes.


“When I wrote ‘Amélie,’ I was alone in my house,” he remembered. “I thought, who is going to be interested by this? The story of a girl, putting her hand in grain? [Adaptation] is much more reassuring, because you know it’s a good story, and you aren’t alone with the story, because it was a best seller.”

The biggest challenge in adapting Japrisot’s novel was changing its epistolary nature: Much of the original novel consists of letters written to and from Mathilde, who is conducting a massive search for her lost fiancé. In the book, this makes sense: Mathilde, who contracted polio as a child, is confined to a wheelchair, and many of her travels must take place at her desk, through the mail.

Concerned that this might not translate well to film, Jeunet made significant changes: His Mathilde limps but is mobile, and many of the letters are transformed into real-life encounters. “In the book, you forget [that she’s in a wheelchair],” he said. “On the screen, you can’t.”

Other changes included jettisoning some minor characters, changing Mathilde’s hobby from painting to tuba-playing, and adding some trademark Jeunet whimsy, such as an eccentric postman.

“I needed a place to put my own ideas. I couldn’t just make an adaptation,” he said. But Jeunet feels that his version is “very close” to the book, and though Japrisot died before the screenplay was finished, the writer’s widow told Jeunet he would have been very happy with the film.

Tautou, committed to the project since Jeunet gave her a copy of the book three years ago (“If she had refused the role, I would not have made the film”), headlined a large cast, including many noted French character actors and a surprising addition: American star Jodie Foster, in a small but crucial role. Foster, who speaks fluent French, contacted Jeunet, saying she would like to work on one of his films. (Jeunet’s American wife, who answered the phone when Foster called, “almost died,” remembered Jeunet, chuckling. “She is a great fan.”)

Having already cast his lead role, Jeunet wasn’t sure what to make of Foster’s offer, and finally sent her an e-mail, “with three propositions, so she could choose. One was, ‘Get lost.’ The second was, ‘I agree to be a guest star for one day.’ The third was, ‘I would like to act a bigger role.’ She chose that one. We were lucky.”

“A Very Long Engagement” was Jeunet’s first large-scale production, with hundreds of extras and “helicopters, cranes, all the toys.” He personally chose the extras who played soldiers, “looking for the faces of the First World War. They were from France, farmers and workers, a lot of them took some vacation, just to make the film. It wasn’t just to watch the shooting of a film, for most of them it was to see what their great-grandfather or grandfather felt. To live like them, to experience the war. It was very touching.”

With this ambitious film finally wrapped, Jeunet isn’t yet sure what his next project will be. He recently turned down an offer to direct the fifth “Harry Potter” movie, because he wasn’t ready to start a new project right away, and because “the freedom, I think, would be narrow.” But he’s keeping his eyes open, looking for the next source of inspiration. “I need to fall in love with a story,” he said. “I need to love everything about it. I couldn’t make a movie as a spectator.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com