Amelie (Le destin fabuleux d'Amelie Poulain) (France, 2001) *** 1/2
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Written by Guillaume Laurant and Mr. Jeunet. Photography, Bruno Delbonnel. Editing, Hervé Schneid. Sets, Aline Bonetto. Music, Yann Tiersen. Producer, Claudie Ossard. Cast: Audrey Tautou (Amélie), Mathieu Kassovitz (Nino Quincampoix), Rufus (Raphael Poulain), Yolande Moreau (Madeleine Wallace), Arthus de Penguern (Hipolito), Urbain Cancellier (Collignon, the grocer), Dominique Pinon (Joseph), Isabelle Nantty (Georgette), Claire Maurier (Suzanne), Serge Merlin (Dufayel), Flora Guiet (young Amélie), et al. A Miramax release. In French with subtitles. 120 minutes. R (mild sex). At the New Art Theater.
While it may be too early to predict the Best Foreign Film at the 2002 Oscars my money is on the enchanting fable "Amelie." It is Jean-Pierre Jeunet's fourth feature, after "Delicatessen" and "The City of Lost Children" (both made with Marc Caro) and his Hollywood effort "Alien Resurrection."
"Amelie," the record-breaker best-seller in France, is warm, fairy-taleish and sweet but low on glucose. It opens with a long, most amusing and creative biography of the child Amelie, then segues with the 23-year old protagonist waitressing in a colorful Parisian café in colorful -- near the Abbesses subway station-in which almost everyone, from personnel to clientele, is colorful and eccentric. So is the population of the neighborhood.
Now, the lines above could belong to a negative review of a movie, but in this case, their meaning has to be taken very positively.
The film packs such a large amount of facts, feelings, portraits, thoughts, information and events that a mere summary would run for pages. Amelie is the epicenter all right, but what and who is around her are of major importance and inseparable from the main "plot." The young woman with intense, observant saucer eyes, gets things going when, behind a wall in her apartment, she discovers a decades-old tin box of items collected by a previous tenant. That's the start of the road to Damascus for the girl. To find the owner and deliver to him this slice of his past she sleuths, successfully. And, having made (anonymously) an older man happy, she embarks on a series of doing good. Her tactics remind me of the very popular early 40s song by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer: "You've got to accentuate the positive/Eliminate the negative/ And latch on to the affirmative/ Don't mess with Mister In-Between/ You've got to spread joy up to the maximum/ Bring gloom down to the minimum/ etc."
Mr. Jeunet has surrounded Amelie with oddballs or eccentrics who range from one-of-a-kind characters to familiar but not-clicheed types. They are all superbly cast. Almost all live in Paris, a Paris of which dozens of locations are shown with immense affection. The film is not a travelogue. It does not separate the City of Light from its denizens. It is simultaneously a love song to the capital and to its people. And it is both the Paris that was, that was, and the Paris of the mind. Using with masterful brio digital techniques and beautifications, the movie idealizes the city to fit the positiveness of Amelie. In this cleaned up Paris one does not step on dog-do, get caught in traffic jams, inhale automobile exhausts, or run into disagreeable characters. Nor does one meet tourists, exhausted commuters or sad proletarians. For that matter, we see no minorities, whether African, Asian or whatever. (The movie had some naysayers about this.)
Still, the picture, while getting dangerously close to postcard-ism as well as to a Brigadoon-minus-sing and dance, manages to avoid it. There is much poetic realism In a sense, and mostly because of Amelie's neighborhood, it follows that loving saying of many that "Paris is really a collection of big villages."
Interestingly, Jeunet's filmic preferences do not include the New Wave and its downbeat movies, yet he shares with it its Paris-centrism. That's the same attitude that one finds in the 1930s French cinema of populism and "poetic realism" by filmmakers such as Marcel Carne.
Mr. Jeunet has symbolically interwoven "his" events with actual happenings. He sets the time in 1997, the year when both Mother Teresa and Princess Di died. The latter is mentioned more than once, the former is recalled by the doing-good persona of an Amelie who might almost be canonized. She is, in her way, a sort of Robin Hood , witness how she sets things right for the symbolically one-armed, put upon employee of a nasty grocer. Witness Amelie made up as Zorro. Or Amelie as a matchmaker. Or as a faker of a "just found" 40-year old letter which finally tells a widow that her cheating husband really loved her.
Amelie's mini-Odyssey runs at times like a scavenger hunt, but one elevated to poetry through magic realism, odd sights and sounds, and surreal images--such as the Tour de France cyclists pedaling behind a loose, galloping horse. Is the name Amelie a witty reference to the play "Take Care of Amelie" by Georges Feydeau , the Belle Epoque master of comedy and bedroom farce? There comes a moment when Amelie. Who takes care of others, will take care of herself. That's when she is sees a young man collecting discards in Photomatons, the booths where you can take fast pictures of yourself. Thereby hangs a very odd romance which adds a new dimention to our story. But I will not elaborate. The strange obsession of the man Nino (played by actor-director Mathieu Kassovitz) was in fact the preocuupation of writer Michel Folco, who did publish his findings and did inspire Jeunet. The Amelie-Nino romance coulld have used a bit of tightening, but this is a minor consideration in a film that is splendidly original, beautifully crafted, entertaining and almost flawless in its ingenuity.