Monday, June 28, 2010

PERSONAL FAVES: Amelie

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Eurovisions (France) / In category: 4 of 10 / Overall: 42 of 100

Montmartre, the present. Twenty-something Amelie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) works as a waitress and lives in the world of her imagination, a result of a childhood spent with her emotionally inexpressive father and deprived of close friends because of a misdiagnosed medical condition. She’s not doing too well on the relationships front.

The accidental discovery of a tin box filled with childhood mementoes leads Amelie on a search for a previous resident of her apartment. She contrives to return it to him while preserving her anonymity and is delighted with his poignant response. Amelie reinvents herself as a do-gooder and match-maker, with some early success.

It’s when she encounters the enigmatic Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz) that Amelie realises she’s been neglecting her own life and happiness. She comes into possession of a scrapbook which Nino drops – full of reassembled photographs torn up and left at passport photo booths on stations – and notices that one face, ghost-like, appears time and time again.

Amelie uses the book and its curious contents to track down Nino, inadvertently solving the identity of the mystery man in the process …


‘Amelie’ is a masterpiece.

Two years ago, in a review of Powell and Pressburger’s ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ (an ethereal and enchanting romantic fantasy that is, in certain ways, the spiritual forebear of ‘Amelie’), I chanced a definition of art. I was a pretentious little sod back then.

This was my definition: “A true work of art functions, equally and simultaneously, on an aesthetic, intellectual and emotional level, the cumulative effect being the betterment of those who experience it.”

I believed (and still believe) that this is absolutely true of ‘A Matter of Life and Death’. I believe it is equally true of ‘Amelie’. It’s an aesthetically gorgeous movie that delivers a heady onrush of emotional satisfaction while having the intelligence (and a soupçon of dark humour) to steer clear of outright emotional manipulation or cloying sentimentality.

‘Amelie’ is also incredibly cleverly constructed, more so than a first viewing would have you believe. On the surface ‘Amelie’ seems to be an exercise in non-narrative, flitting between serio-comic situations and playfully eccentric characters with such butterfly-like charm that it would be bad sportsmanship to probe the soufflé-light edifice of it too deeply or critically.

After enough viewings (I’m significantly into the double figures), the structural intricacy gradually becomes apparent. As does the depth of characterization. Take the scenes from Amelie’s childhood, a whistlestop montage of nostalgia, backstory and craftily delivered exposition. Amelie is socially awkward because she lives in a dreamworld. This is because she lived alone with her father following the freak confluence of circumstances that caused her mother’s demise (I’ll leave the mechanics of it under wraps; let’s just say it’s way funnier than it has any right to be) and had no real friends. This is because she was thought to have a heart condition and was kept at home. Which in turn is because the only time Amelie’s father paid her any attention was when he performed a medical check-up, including listening to her heartbeat through a stethoscope. Delighted at the attention, her heart beats faster in anticipation. Her father worries that it’s a bad sign, conducting check-ups more frequently; Amelie, associating them with the attention that is otherwise denied her, feigns illness.

Or, to put it in mawkish terms, Amelie’s social ineptitude and lack of emotional fulfillment in adulthood owes to her desperation for her father’s love as a child. Seriously, how puke-making does that make it sound? Can you imagine how that scenario would work in an American mainstream movie? It’d be like ‘Terms of Endearment’, ‘Sophie’s Choice’, ‘Who Will Love My Children’ and ‘Steel Magnolias’ all thrown into a blender with added saccharine; watching it would be like drowning in a vat of syrup. John Williams would pull out all the stops for the soundtrack. The amount of vibrato would cause earthquakes. Can you imagine it done in a rom-com? It would ravage the rom and kill the com!

Now here’s the way Jean-Pierre Jeunet does it: a few lines of droll (almost throwaway) voiceover, a handful of quirky images, no dwelling on the backstory or milking of the emotions, and hey presto here’s another scene and some more deliriously offbeat characters and frame upon frame of images so lovingly rendered you could hit the pause button at random and just stare in complete gratitude at the screen.




Or take the effortless way Amelie’s search for the owner of the tin box sets up the supporting cast, all of whom eventually benefit (to a greater or lesser degree) from Amelie’s do-gooding. And here, ironically, is where Jeunet and his co-scripter Guillaume Laurant infuse the proceedings with the odd shadowy reminder that not all is sweetness and light. There’s Amelie’s revenge on Collignon (Urbair Cancelier), a bad-tempered grocer who comes across as a cinematic second cousin of Clapet in ‘Delicatessen’, for mistreating his educationally-challenged assistant Lucien (Jamel Debbouze). Sure, Collignon deserves it … but, man, does Amelie pull some nasty shit on him, reducing the man to a terrified, gibbering wreck.

Then there’s her well-meaning but emotionally and morally questionable duping of Madeleine (Yolande Moreau), a widow pining for the husband who died in a plane crash. Madeleine has spent years pouring over his letters and perpetuating a monumental case of denial. Although common knowledge that he’d left her for another woman, Madeleine tells herself that he was on the verge of returning to her. Amelie, catching a news story about a letter recovered from a crash site and delivered to its addressee decades later, plays to Madeleine’s self-delusion by concocting a fake letter. Again, it’s a scene so blithe in its execution that you don’t immediately stop to worry about how justified or otherwise Amelie is in her actions.

There are other dark and sometimes unexpected touches: Nino’s part-time job at a porn shop; Amelie imagining a news report of her own funeral; Amelie and Nino’s first actual meeting on a ghost train, Nino dressed as a skeleton; Amelie’s match-making backfiring as the couple’s relationship fragments under a mélange of neuroses, jealousy and hypochondria. It’s probably the savory tang of these moments that makes ‘Amelie’ work; saves it from becoming too cutesy and sentimental.


I’ve broken the 1,000 word mark on this article and could double or triple that with ease. But time is marching on and I’ve got ‘A Very Long Engagement’ to watch. There is plenty more to say about the film – I’ll doubtless revisit it some day on this blog – but the final word goes to the cast. The Jeunet Regulars – Dominique Pinon, Ticky Holgado and Rufus – are present and correct and doing stellar work. Indeed, every role is perfectly essayed. But, oh, the title role. The casting goes beyond perfect. Audrey Tautou defines the title role. Audrey Tautou was born to play Amelie.

And Jeunet to direct it.

6 comments:

Simon said...

Excellent write-up, I'll have to revisit it when I actually get around to seeing the goddamn thing.

Aaron said...

I loooooooooooove AMELIE. If there was ever a movie that I thought I was going to hate but ended up absolutely loving, it would be this one. Before seeing this, I knew who Jenuet was, but it wasn't until after seeing this that I actually became a fan. One of my favorite movies. Enjoying the Jenuet posts so far, Neil. Keep up the excellent work.

P.S. Have you seen, or are you going to make an attempt to see MICMACS?

The Film Connoisseur said...

Amelie, an explosion of color and sweetness. What I enjoy about the movie is Amelie as a character, she seems determined to make people happy, and that instantly makes her noble and likable.

But as you mention in your review, you better not mess with her, cause she also has that dark side.

One of my favorite parts of the movie is the thing she does with the little dwarf, where she makes her dad think the little dwarf is traveling across the world...hee-la-rious!

Hey Neil, am I not the only one salivating at seeing these two directors work together again? Do you know if they are still good friends or if they hate each other? Whats the dirt on their break up as a team?

You should check out and review Dante 0.1, I know its not JEunet, but its Caro. Its interesting to see where Caro went to with his films.

Neil Fulwood said...

Simon - thanks for commenting. 'Amelie' should definitely be shunted towards the top of your "must see" list.

Aaron - I'm just about to sit down and watch 'Micmacs'. I missed it at the cinema and it's only just come out on DVD here in the UK. I've been trying to steer clear of reviews, but I get the sense that most people were indifferent towards it. Stay tuned; I'll be giving my verdict tomorrow.

Francisco - I don't know much about the behind-the-scenes story on Jeunet and Caro's partnership. I know Caro contributed production design work to some of Jeunet's solo features, so I don't think there was an acriminous split between them. Apparently, Jeunet was the more actor-orientated of the two filmmakers while Caro concentrated more on the visuals.

I haven't seen 'Dante 01' yet, but I'll definitely make a point of tracking down a copy. It's payday tomorrow, so I might order it off the net; it'd make for an interesting point of comparison now that I'm almost at the end of the Jeunet filmography.

J.D. said...

I'm also a big fan of this film. It is just a visual wonder with one stunning image after another and I wondered if Audrey Tatou was going to be Jeunet's cinematic muse much like Irene Jacob was Kieslowski's for awhile.

Between this film and A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT, they certainly work very well together and both inspire each other to raise their game up to a higher level. I don't think that they've ever done as good work as they have in their collaborations together.

This is a truly special film for sure and one that I've watched many times.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for the comment, J.D.

Tautou definitely hasn't delivered anything as memorable outside of Jeunet's filmography; even her acclaimed turn as Coco Chanel doesn't hit the same heights. I'm hoping the future holds more collaborations for them; I hate for the last thing they did together to be a perfume advert!