A curious thing happened the other day that left me fascinated, so of course I felt the need to share it here. A successful and esoteric French filmmaker named Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who is perhaps best known for wonderful movies like City of Lost Children and Amélie, and less for his one English language blunder, Alien: Resurrection, accused this year’s leading contender for the Best Director Oscar of plagiarism. According to the Frenchman, Guillermo Del Toro’s brilliant tour de force that is The Shape of Water — my favorite film this year and, it would appear, the prime Oscar frontrunner — contains a blatant rip-off of Jeunet’s work, and it’s all trés scandaleux.
The moment in question — and make no mistake, it’s just a moment — involves a delightful little pas de deux between the movie’s two stars, Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins. Seated on a couch and watching an old black and white movie, they engage in a charming dance, using only their feet as they sit there, side by side. It’s literally a few seconds, and is nothing more than a character beat between two people who clearly love each other and have a long history of shared interests between them. But, according to Jeunet, this piece of cinematic candy was actually something sour, as it was stolen outright from his 1991 film, Delicatassen.
In an interview with the French publication Ouest-France, he said, “I told [del Toro]: ‘You have a lot of imagination, a lot of talent. Why go and [steal]the ideas of others?’ [Del Toro] said, ‘We owe Terry Gilliam everything.’ According to [del Toro], he does not steal from others, it is Terry Gilliam who has influenced us all. When he [directs]the scene of the couple sitting on the edge of the bed dancing with their feet, with the musical in the background on TV, it is so copied and pasted [from]Delicatessen that there is a moment when I say to myself that he lacks self-respect.” He then continued, “Guillermo has enough talent not to do that,” and “It is obvious that he had Delicatessen in mind.”
Okay. A couple things come to mind here. The first is the obvious one, about where influence ends and outright theft begins. Having seen both movies, and reviewed both scenes as soon as I saw Jeunet’s claim, I don’t really see what Jeunet’s problem is. The similarity between the two moments — which, again, occur 26 years apart — is that both couples are seated as they engage in some form of dance. Jeunet’s couple do so on a bed, and completely with their upper bodies, in a sort of synchronized shifting from one side to the other, rather than an actual dance. In The Shape of Water, as noted, it’s a two-step, using only their feet, and it’s much more lively and engaging.
If we take this at face value, that del Toro aped Jeunet’s moment by having the two characters dance while seated, okay, there’s maybe some merit there, but that’s pretty much as far as it goes. Del Toro has yet to respond to Jeunet’s accusation, and I don’t really blame him, because I’m not sure I would, either. If so, I’d point out that there’s also a similar moment between Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas in the 2001 hit Save the Last Dance in which the two characters do some movement whilst seated, but you don’t hear that movie’s director, Thomas Carter, complaining about it.
But even if del Toro did admit to having Delicatessen in mind, so what? The two cinematic moments are varied enough that what we’re really talking about here is not theft, but influence, and that’s a horse of an entirely different color. To cite someone for being influenced by another piece of art would be to indict the entirety of the movie industry. And the TV industry. Not to mention literature, painting, music… pretty much any creative endeavor you can imagine. Del Toro reveres Terry Gilliam, and is open about it. No less an auteur than Martin Scorsese is brutally upfront about how often he takes “inspiration” from other filmmakers, referencing directors from all over the globe with specific shots and sequences in all of his movies. (Fun fact: according to Scorsese’s legendary longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, as soon as the director enters the editing room each day, he turns on TCM to watch while he’s working.) The most famous sequence from one of the best-respected movies of the 1980s, The Untouchables’ shootout on the train station steps as a baby carriage slowly rolls through, is a blatant reference to a sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, something for which director Brian de Palma was lauded at the time.
Jeunet himself is not immune to this, as he was the first to admit that his biggest hit, Amélie, was heavily influenced by his love of cartoons, particularly the work of Tex Avery, who of course spent decades churning out work for Warner Bros. and MGM, where he was pivotal in the creation of such characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, and Porky Pig, just to name a few. So to go after del Toro for something like this is not only ironic, it’s also more than a little hypocritical, not to mention narcissistic.
The other part of this that interests me is the question of backlash. It’s a standard part of any Oscar season, wherein one of the favorites starts to catch flak from one corner of the industry that decides a film is somehow unworthy of all the praise it’s getting (for the current example, see: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). When Jeunet’s comments were made public on Tuesday, I immediately wondered if this would start a similar wave of bad tidings against del Toro’s film, or if people would instead just dismiss Jeunet’s words as the ravings of an angry French dude.
The fact that the immediate response to this appears to be one of colossal indifference is heartening. Jeunet’s attack came after del Toro had already won the DGA honor, so while that vote wasn’t affected, there’s still the chance that some people’s Oscar vote could be, but the fact that there hasn’t been a resulting outcry leads me to believe that The Shape of Water won’t suffer too much as a result. Instead, people will probably read Jeunet’s words and shrug them off. When asked what to make of them, they will answer, “Je nes se quoi.”