VISITING SEATTLE recently, an affable, thickly accented Jean-Pierre Jeunet had comedy on his mind, since Am鬩e has been drawing smiles at festivals around the world. In Toronto this fall, where his film earned the top audience award, the director recalls, “It was an amazing thing” to sit with laughing, predominantly English-speaking moviegoers.

How did the reaction compare to that of French viewers? “It was louder,” chuckles Jeunet, still pleased by Am鬩e‘s strong reception at home. “It’s number one. It was a big surprise. I wanted to make a small film, a French film . . . very low budget. I didn’t expect the success. So amazing. In general, for a comedy in France to work, it’s about sex, a little bit heavy. This one is so different!”

The most important difference, Jeunet emphasizes, is his heroine’s spirit of altruism, which contrasts with the Gallic cynicism he decries. “She has to stay positive. Even when she’s sad, she stays positive. It just makes the other people happy.” Does the film then strike a universal nerve in audiences accustomed to selfish, jaded urban anonymity? “Yes. It’s talking about generosity. It’s talking also about small pleasure. It’s talking also about romantic experience, not realistic experience. “It’s not a fairy tale. It’s a fable.”

Appropriately, unlike the brusque, bustling city of today, Jeunet’s Paris has a retro-fantastic element to it: “It’s a fake Paris—but in fact the Paris I had in my head, because when I went to Paris when I was 20 . . . it was my Paris, a kind of dream, a postcard Paris.” So is contemporary France any more cynical than the U.S.? Answers Jeunet, “In France it’s worse! Because the people are so tough. When I come back from a while in the States, I am shocked. I think that when an American guy goes to Paris, you have to give him advice: ‘French people are going to hate you! But don’t be worried about that, because they hate themselves.’ It’s a question of culture.”

Finally, he concludes, “I wanted to show to French people how Paris could be nice.”