Amelie (France, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Years ago, while watching Delicatessen (in 1992) and The City of Lost Children (in 1995), I wondered which of the co-directors, Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Marc Caro, was more responsible for the films' quirky tone and striking visual style. Although Caro hasn't made a film since The City of Lost Children, Jeunet has continued in the business, accepting the Hollywood offer to helm Alien: Resurrection, then returning to his native France to direct Amelie. With the release of this movie, which has won critical accolades across the world, become one of the most popular home-grown films of all time in France, and captured the audience award at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival, I have learned the answer to my question. Amelie makes it clear that the primary creative force behind the earlier films' stylistic uniqueness was Jeunet.

Like Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run, Amelie is energized by instances of fast-cutting and unexpected inserts. We learn more about secondary characters than we need to know (a tongue-in-cheek voiceover, for example, lists their "likes" and "dislikes"), and are the richer for the experience. Amelie works not just because it tells an interesting story about an affable character, but because it does so in an involving and energetic manner that incorporates the right amount of comedy into the overall mixture. This motion picture proves that two hours can pass very quickly in a movie theater if what's being projected on screen truly deserves its running time.

Amelie is about Amelie Poulain (Audrey Tatou), a young woman who has spent most of her life existing in the background. As a child, she was discouraged from having friends by her neurotic mother and emotionally distant father. As an adult, she works as a waitress in a café and spends her nights alone in her small apartment. She has no boyfriend, no confidantes, and no real sense of purpose in life. But all that is about to change. One small event - the discovery of a box of old snapshots and toys in a hidden compartment in her apartment - causes her to take action. She sets out to find the owner of the box, and her quest eventually leads him to reconcile with his son. Emboldened by her success, Amelie decides to become a force for good in her small corner of the world, helping others around her. In the process, she encounters Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz), who may be her soulmate - if she can ever find the courage to talk to him face-to-face and admit her feelings for him.

Amelie is a wonderfully uplifting motion picture that features a sparkling performance by Audrey Tautou in the lead role. Tautou brings Amelie to life with a delightful mix of shyness, energy, and mischievousness. It doesn't take long for Tautou to win our sympathy, and, once gained, it's something she never loses. It isn't difficult to understand why this movie has been such a success with audiences around the world - it's the kind of motion picture that's both intelligent and immensely likable - just like the main character.

Mathieu Kassovitz (the director of Hate) makes Nino an effective match for Amelie. Kassovitz underplays the part perfectly, showing that Nino, like Amelie, is used to being in the background, not the foreground. Also like Amelie, Nino is shy about their relationship, but he is determined to pursue it. Since she never approaches him directly, but is content to leave him clues and anonymous messages, he is forced into the role of detective and pursuer, and Kassovitz displays the gradual strengthening of Nino's confidence and personality as events mature. Other supporting performers include Rufus (as Amelie's father), Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon as a disgruntled customer at the café where Amelie works, and Serge Merlin as Amelie's painter neighbor, who gives her advice on life and love.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the film, aside from its visual vivaciousness, is the manner in which Amelie chooses to help others. Rather than going about things in a straightforward manner, she devises stratagems, the complexities of which are analogous to the workings of a Rube Goldberg project. Her father has a hidden desire to travel, so, in order to bring his interest to the surface, Amelie kidnaps his garden gnome and has it photographed in front of various geographical landmarks around the world. For a neighbor who cherishes old love letters from her dead husband, Amelie fakes one that was "recently found". And so on... Throughout this movie, Jeunet keeps us guessing whom Amelie will help next, and how she will choose to do so.

Voyerism is also a theme. Characters in this movie spend a lot of time watching. Amelie studies others before taking action. Nino keeps a scrap book of torn snapshots. And Amelie's painter neighbor, the "Glass Man", has not left his apartment for 20 years. He remains inside, gazing out his window when he isn't copying a painting of Renoir's. In fact, the Glass Man's choice to venerate Renoir adds another layer to the theme, since the artist was once referred to as a "professional voyeur" who spent much time observing his subjects to understand them before committing their images to the canvas.

Like Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Amelie uses odd camera angles, quick edits, and other "tricks" to keep the movie visually dynamic. Recognizing that it's easy for an audience to become bored by the repeated use of familiar shots, Jeunet varies our diet without going so far overboard that it negatively impacts the viewing experienced. His approach proves to be stimulating and invigorating. Since this is a lighthearted drama (with occasional detours into absurd comedy), not a science fiction excursion, there aren't as many excesses as in the previous movies, but anyone familiar with Jeunet's previous work will immediately recognize the style. By shooting all around Paris, Jeunet uses the city as more of a character than a mere backdrop, although the director's surreal and timeless vision should not be confused with the place seen by tourists (or even ordinary citizens). This is Jeunet's city, where magic abounds in the strangest places, where fate and predestination lurk around every corner, where photographs talk, and where one sprightly young woman can orchestrate small miracles. Amelie's golden touch will even extend to Miramax Films - by releasing this movie in North America, the distributor will restore some of the sheen to an image tarnished by its recent, frequent embracing of subpar material.

Amelie (France, 2001)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2001-11-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1