Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain
starring Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz, Rufus, Yolande Moreau
screenplay by Guillaume Laurant, Jean-Pierre Jeunet
directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
by Walter Chaw Caught between an iceberg of a father (Rufus) and a nervous wreck of a mother (Lorella Cravotta), the very peculiar Amélie (Audrey Tautou) develops in her youth an active imagination to combat emotional starvation. When she's 22, on the night of Lady Di's death-by-paparazzi, Amélie accidentally discovers a tin of toys and photographs, a child's treasure cache hidden away in her apartment some forty years previous. Resolving to return the artifacts to their rightful owner, Amélie discovers that acts of altruism serve as voyeuristic surrogates to her life's social desolation. Taking its cue from the bare structure of Jane Austen's Emma and--ironically, considering the ultra-stylistic character of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's direction--the stark work of the Nouvelle Vague (Truffaut in particular), the strength of Amélie (Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain) is in its imagery. Its weaknesses, alas, are a running time that is at least a half-an-hour too long and a resolution so predictable that the film's problems of pacing and length meet in something resembling frustration.
Amélie's self-described "do-gooderism" includes describing a street scene to a blind man, matchmaking for a pair of matchless misfits, encouraging her father to travel, visiting karmic justice on a mean fruit vendor, and lending a sympathetic ear to her building's Mrs. Haversham. Meanwhile, her own fragile psyche is deconstructed by frequent conversations with a withered old painter who has reproduced Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party once a year for twenty years and always lacked the insight to appropriately capture the expression of a young woman drinking a glass of water. Amélie, of course, sees herself in Renoir's disconnected subject, and in deconstructing the girl's loneliness begins to realize that she needs to be a "Lady Di" instead of a "Mother Teresa." One of many sly subtexts in the otherwise featherlight Amélie, demonstrating that Jeunet's twisted Stygian heart can be disguised but not extinguished, is the idea that while charity is nice, it could never provide as much happiness as being beautiful and tragically in love.
After a brief flirtation with Hollywood only succeeded in bedding the critical and popular failure of Alien: Resurrection (the perversity of which I liked, I confess), the French Jeunet presents what is easily the frothiest of his four features (the others are Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children) as a genial postcard fantasy. Utilizing digital post-production techniques and an exhausting eighty location shoots in and around Paris and the streets of Montmartre, Jeunet's aesthetic is dazzling (and at times tiring), presenting a breathtaking portrait of the City of Lights that is alive with possibility and a golden-tinged magical realism. Make no mistake that the star of the film is Jeunet's eye, his flair for the fantastic, and his love for the people and the capital city of his country--it's almost as though the disappointment of his journey through the multi-cooked stew of a studio franchise awoke in him the urge to memorialize his fair metropolis with an intoxicating and sweet love song.
Like most great love songs, however, Amélie is both a touch simple-minded and probably most interesting to the recipient of the serenade. It is so clever that it verges on smug, so optimistic that it can get unsettling, and so laden with visual flourishes that their novelty begins to waver. And yet, the film is also so dedicated to the sweetness at its core that it's impossible to dislike much. Besides, when it soars (and Amélie does take wing a time or two), it points to the joy inherent in the act of creation in all its multiplicity of forms. Jeunet is a vibrant and brilliant cinematic voice, and while I prefer the unabashed wickedness of the director's The City of Lost Children and the Swiftian satire of his Delicatessen, there can be no disputing that Amélie is a visually arresting film that stands out in a year of great-looking cinema. If only the story at its heart were as buoyant and inventive as the images. Originally published: October 27, 2001.