Sometimes it's enough to attend the cinema to escape to another world, more innocent and romantic than the one we inhabit. Such is the case for Amelie (La Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain), as sweet and pleasing a visual experience as you're likely to see.
Much credit for the bright and colorful look must go to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who makes the Montmarte section of Paris look especially inviting. Never have Parisians looked warmer, whether inside a sleazy adult video store, embarking on an old funhouse ride, practicing backhands against the La Sacré Coeur, or drinking coffee at a local bistro.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who previously directed Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, has crafted a charming and life-affirming tale of an introverted café waitress who crafts elaborate schemes and practical jokes either to bring happiness or some measure of justice to others. In light of recent terrorist attacks, it’s refreshing to see a character reach out to relative strangers the way that Amelie (Audrey Tautou) does.
Amelie leads a fanciful and sheltered life, and has done so ever since childhood, when she once was led to believe that she had caused accidents by taking photographs. Her method of extracting revenge on the soccer-loving neighbor who perpetrated this idea is very creative and hilarious. Introverts will especially appreciate the way Amelie observes people from afar and conjures various whimsies, like the time she gazes over the rooftops and wonders how many people are experiencing orgasms at that moment. (Jeunet does provide a montage at that point.) Another example of dark humor occurs with the bizarre death of Amelie's mother.
Her life-changing experience occurs coincidentally with the death of Princess Di, when she inadvertently discovers a box of someone's childhood treasures dating from the 1950s. Recalling her own sheltered life, she determines to return some joy to the unknown owner of the box. Witnessing the tears of the recipient, Amelie sets out to create more happiness in the world.
She matches up a crochety café customer (Dominique Pinon) with the café's self conscious pharmacist (Isabelle Naty) for a grinding tryst in the restroom, creates a 40-year-old letter to convince her concierge (Yolande Moreau) that her wayfaring husband's last dying thoughts were of his wife, brings new tasty delicacies to a shut-in artist (Michel Robin), and helps an innocent simple-minded grocery clerk by creating imaginative booby traps in the apartment of his abusive boss. The most comical trick she pulls off benefits her "cold fish" stay-at-home father, who gets funny Polaroid pictures of his prized ceramic gnome travelling the globe and posing in front of the Statue of Liberty or a Cambodian Buddhist temple.
In the midst of her humanistic pranks, Amelie finds a love interest. But will this timid charmer be able to stop playing her tricks long enough to pull off her mask to face her fears and risk rejection from the young man? Or has her dysfunctional childhood upbringing made her incapable of pursuing and accepting love?
The story can be boiled down to the same type of "boy meets girl" plot we've seen in countless other films, yet this feels fresher than others that have recently trod the same ground. The bright cinematography and colorful settings all contribute to this (I'm a sucker for Paris location shootings), but how much the viewer will enjoy this will depend on how much he or she relates to wide-eyed, naïve Amelie.
The puckish humor should appeal to most, but some will have difficulty accepting that such a girl would also harbor such severe inhibitions—the whole situation feels contrived. Why does Amelie play scavenger-hunt games with a guy she is obviously in love with? The continual use of voiceover also makes Amelie seem more like a modern urban legend than a true-to-life character study.
If you're looking for realism, Amelie isn't for you. In this cinematic fantasy the streets of Paris don't have dog shit all over them, the Metro remains remarkably clean, and the Parisians are unbelievably open and friendly. Somehow Amelie is able to spraypaint blue arrows going up the steps of La Sacré Coeur without police intervention, and even a crotchety neighbor offers wisdom and shows sympathy for a simpleton.
This is quite different from the Paris in The 400 Blows Although the Parisian locations may be the same, Amelie is nothing like the darker French New Wave cinema of Truffaut and Godard.
Amelie remains a very charming and warm romance without a lot of substance. But after seeing a great many films that were simplistic, shallow, and loathsome, this is a welcome break. Sometimes it's enough to sit in a Paris café and be entertained with the nostalgic sounds of an accordion while munching sweet French pastries. Amelie serves the same purpose, and much better than Chocolat. Bon appetít.