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 …
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.