Amélie (Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain)
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Cleolinda: ****

Trailers We Saw (Yours May Vary): Star Wars: Episode II; Undisputed; Orange County; I Am Sam

I always promise myself that I won’t run home and write my review right after I finish seeing a movie, but it’s hard not to—especially after a gem like Amélie. I admit up front that I’d heard a lot about this one—based on buzz alone I’d predicted four months ago that this would be a lock for the Best Foreign Film Oscar (although, based on buzz alone, now I’m not so sure). And, as the months passed down here in sub-metropolitan Birming-ham, the more I heard, the more afraid I became that this was going to be a masterpiece—of saccharine. I heard its twinkly charm and candy-colored romanticism praised so high that the hype began to turn in on itself and become a detraction in itself, as happens to many times to so many films that meet early acclaim.

My point—and I do have one—is that I want this review to serve as reas-surance to you: The whimsy of Amélie treads with a light foot, a sure foot. I feel uncomfortable throwing around words like “masterpiece” only thirty minutes after leaving the theater darkness, but this is, in fact, the kind of movie where you leave looking at everything differently. The last time I remember this exact feeling was when I saw Run Lola Run—the two films are really nothing alike, except that they’re sort of cousins in terms of philosophy, and in terms of the way they look at the effect one person can have on the world around them.

They also share the extraordinary vision of a singular artist—Tom Tywker, in the case of Lola, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whom a lot of film buffs know as the director of the apocalyptic Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, but who will be known, with a sense of shock, to the rest of the country as the director of Alien: Resurrection. (It is perhaps notable that this is the first film he has made since that last—we hope—Alien flick.) I looked this up on the IMDB, because I suspected as much—he and Guillaume Laurant co-wrote the story, with Laurant writing out the actual screenplay; you can tell that this is the work of an artist, in the sense that an artist—a story-teller, a painter, a photographer, whatever—does what he does to
reveal something to you. Whether he fails or succeeds is another story, but it’s far preferable to trying to sell something to you. And I’m not even specifically indicting Ameri-can creativity here—I firmly believe that we could make better movies in this country if we could just stop counting the chips and get the hell out of a writer and/or director’s way.

And what a way it is in Amélie. That’s the other thing: not only does Jeunet have a distinct visual flair—evident for a long time, though this is the first time I know of that he’s dressed it in such vibrant jewel tones; I’m still playing around with his emerald and scarlet motif in my head—but he doesn’t get lost in Quirkyville. As much as I hate actually discussing plot (imagine! telling you what the movie is about—
no!), Amélie is about a very imaginative, sheltered young girl who grows up to be a very imaginative, sheltered young woman who, by chance, discovers a mysterious box of childhood treasures behind a bathroom tile. She decides that if she can find its owner, and he’s “touched” by the box’s return, she’ll keep on trying to do little random acts of kindness—“and if not, too bad.” Of course he is, and of course she does.

The joke, of course, is that she starts intervening—or meddling, whichever way you want to look at it—in the “messy lives” of the people around her, but of course she neglects to fix her own. And when she finds someone (who’s just as quirky as she is) that she’d like to be fixed up with, as it were, she’s too shy to do anything more than plot and plan her “strata-gems.” It’s at this point I would like to get down on my knees and thank the good Lord for Jean-Pierre Jeunet and company, because if this were a studio film, scripted by committee and finely honed in test screenings, Amélie would have turned into another one of those Crazy Outsider[s] in the Wacky Village Who Opens Everyone’s Narrow Little Mind and Solves Their Problems, Thereby Solving His/Her/Their Own. (See not only Chocolat, but half the British comedies of the last ten years, including but not limited to The Full Monty, Billy Elliott, Greenfingers, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down the Blah Blah Blah, Cold Comfort Farm, etc., etc. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of these films…)

It’s the very formula that rankles so much—it’s no fun when your movie runs on autopilot. But Amélie is a lot of fun, and in part because Jeunet takes the Quirky Do-Gooder formula and subverts it in neat little ways— forgive me if this is a spoiler, but one of Amélie’s matchmaking attempts (between a hypochondriac clerk and a pathologically jealous regular at the café where Amélie works) ends the way it most likely would in real life, thank you very much, which is extremely refreshing. The point is not that she can tie everybody’s life up into happy little bowtie endings, but that she, a solitary woman we see take pleasure in life’s little joys (“cracking the crust of crème brulée with the back of teaspoon,” “turning around and looking at faces in a movie theater,” “running her fingers through bags of grain” at the market) instead of daring to dive into its larger passions. While her matchmaking attempt is by definition a failure, it culminates in a rafter-shaking rendezvous before it fizzles out; perhaps Amélie’s point is that you’ll never get to the larger pleasures if you don’t start off with the small.

Another subversion of the “do-gooder” stereotype is how Amélie avenges (literally; in her mind she’s dressed as Zorro) the daily humiliations of local grocer’s assistant. Technically, here, she is not really using her powers for good, as it were, as humiliating the grocer in his turn; Amélie may be a guardian angel, but she’s no saint. And this is only one of two great running jokes, the other being that the garden gnome her father’s set to watch over her mother’s ashes in the backyard (don’t ask; you don’t even want to know how the mother died) disappears—and starts terrorizing the father with Polaroids mailed home of his gnomish globetrotting exploits. (“Moscow?!”) Again, Amélie is trying to make the point that her father needs to travel the way he always dreamed, but by the time she’s done scaring him, he might not have much life left to do it in.

But will Amélie find her own guardian angel—will she finally stop hiding be-hind the “stratagems” she plots in the name of others and go after some-thing she herself really wants? Can she stop sneaking through the shadows of her fantasies and brave something big, something real? The answer to this question is a foregone conclusion, you know that as much as I do, even with a film as fresh as this; but the revelation of the film isn’t the content of the revelation so much as its character. And that’s the beauty of it: while Amélie has certainly turned a few tables and enriched a few lives, the ends are far from tied up at the movie’s end, and the film has the sense to hit its romantic climax and
end. (Your normal by-the-numbers rom-com flick has at least one obligatory lovers’ spat, followed by a seemingly needless period of alienation and then a last-minute reconciliation as trumped-up as the argument was in the first place.) But what Amélie leaves you with instead is the idea that life requires active participation—you can look for mystery and wonder and joy or you can hide from it, and of course someone so attuned to the little pleasures has a bigger lesson to learn before the story’s done. And that, possibly, is what leaves people so enthused when they walk out of the theater: what Amélie reveals is not a simple plot twist, but a way of life.

Photo credits:
This is Audrey Tautou--Amélie herself--who may or may not be the love child of Audrey Hepburn and Juliette Binoche.
This is Amélie's crème brulée spoon.
This is the cat that likes to hear children's stories.
This is a gnome-napping.
Though Amélie grew, her hair, apparently, never did.
In about two seconds, the pig lamp is going to turn himself off.

The box that starts it all.

Taking pictures with a hand-me-down Instamatic does not cause jumbo jet crashes. Just so you know.

You wouldn't think so, but French medical insurance actually provides very well for imaginary alligators. (Especially if they look like giant pickles.)

Cute guy--cute, but weird.

"Who you callin' weird, Zorro?"

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