AMELIE, the delightful French romantic comedy that became a hit on the U.S. art house circuit in 2002, weaves several threads into a single story. Amelie (Audrey Tautou) is a young waitress who has grown emotionally distant because of her childhood, withdrawing into her own imagination. She starts to come out of her shell after the accidental discovery of a childhood cache of mementos in her apartment, presumably left behind by a previous tenant. She resolves to reunite the objects with their owner, but without revealing herself. Her success leads to a series of attempts to intervene in other people’s lives (including that of her widowed father, whose garden gnome she sends on a trip around the world, as a way of goading him into traveling himself), but she avoids taking credit for her successes.
In short, Amelie is a neurotic, living out an extremely complex life involving intricate plans that conform to her inner life, instead of taking the simple, obvious path that would occur to anyone else. (The film’s full French title, which translates roughly as ‘The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain,’ suggests the character’s world view better than the pithier Americanized version.) This way of life, turning every step into an adventure, is what makes her interesting as a character, but we can also see how it is interfering with her own life. Fortunately, her path crosses with a young man (Matthieu Kassovitz), who has a strange obsession of his own: collecting discarded snapshots form public photo booths and reassembling them for his scrapbook. It’s obvious from the first that these two are meant for each other, but the question is how will they ever get together? Amelie embarks on a series of stratagems that make her seem intriguing by keeping herself at a distance, briefly glimpsed at a distance or heard over the telephone, but always delaying a close-up meeting. It’s as if she’s afraid that the reality will not live up to expectations, and the question is whether she is really in control of the situation, or is the situation controlling her? All her strategy seems designed to arouse her would-be lover’s attention, but at the same time she seems incapable of breaking out of her habitual behavior in order to finally meet the man of her dreams.
Since this is a comedy, we know things will work out in the end. The joy of the film is in seeing how Amelie’s intricate plans will play out — and also in seeing whether she will be able to drop those plans, which are really a shield she keeps between herself and the world. If all this makes the film sound like psychotherapy, truthfully it is anything but. The visual style is light and filled with fun, and several comic interludes keep us amused while we wait to see how the love story turns out. (Especially funny is Amelie’s secret tormenting of a cruel grocer, who picks on his slow-witted employee: Amelie sneaks into the man’s apartment and switches doorknobs and slipper sizes, so that the man starts to think he’s going crazy, the familiar items of his home suddenly — ever so slightly — different from what he remembers.)
There is something about foreign language films that has always turned off American audiences. (What? Are we so illiterate that we can’t stand to read subtitles?) When the film in question is a French love story, the aversion seems to increase exponentially. Yet, AMELIE is a genuine pleasure, a film filled with clever wit and amazing visuals. It’s a fantasy of falling in love, air-brushed with all the cinematic technique you can imagine, including computer-generated special effects that make Paris look like some kind of idealized nirvana. What?s amazing is the way the love story lends some much-needed heart and soul to all the visual touches. The result is a perfect synthesis: every emotion in the screenplay is illustrated with a memorable image, and every memorable image is underlined with genuine emotion. It is entirely appropriate that the film would be nominated in the obvious visually-oriented Oscar categories (Art Direction, Cinematography) and for its wonderful screenplay. In short, this is a film that women will love, but that shouldn’t stop the guys from seeing it either. If you simply love good film-making, you?ll love this film.
NOTE: The film was nominated in five categories by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, including Best Foreign Language Film. The other nominations were for Art Direction, Cinematography, Sound, and Screenplay. Unfortunately, there was no acknowledgment for Jean-Pierre Jeunet as director, but he shared a nomination with Guillaume Laurant for the script.
AMELIE (a.k.a. Le Faubuleux Destin D’Amelie Poulain, 2002). Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Screenplay & Dialogue by Guillaume Laurant, from a story by Laurant & Jeunet. Starring: Audrey Tatou, Mathieu Kassovit, Yalande Moreau, Artus de Penguern
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