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Amélie: Jeunet's Winsome Parisian Bonbon a Rare Crowd-Pleaser


Audrey Tautou in Amelie
Audrey Tautou in Amélie
Photo: John Clifford

Mathieu Kassovitz in  Amelie
Mathieu Kassovitz in Amélie
Photo: Bruno Calvo

Audrey Tautou and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet of Amelie
Audrey Tautou and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet of Amélie
Photo: Bruno Calvo

Photos courtesy of Miramax Films

By Simma Park

NEW YORK, 28 February 2002 - Over the past decade, film and television have rediscovered the optimism of the big city. Gone is the gritty, dangerous no man's land of the 70s and 80s that served as the stage for the crises of society, replaced by a freshly painted, rejuvenated setting that abounds in possibilities and nourishes the lives of its inhabitants. Parisians are enthusiastic contributors to this trend, and recent films celebrate the renewal of the city's image as a locus of vivacity, style, and Gallic charm. 1996's Chacun cherche son chat (Cédric Klapisch, English title: When the Cat's Away), was a loving portrait of Belleville, a formerly working-class quarter in the city's 11th arrondissement undergoing a somewhat rocky transformation into the city's hippest neighborhood. Alain Resnais' On connaît la chanson (1997, English title: Same Old Song) was a musical celebration of a Paris taken, it seems, straight out of the guidebooks.

In the same vein, Amélie (French title: Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain) is a winsome bonbon of a romantic comedy that fêtes its corner of Paris as much as it delights in the benign eccentricities of human nature. The film is named after its heroine, a painfully timid and withdrawn young waitress whose life changes one day when she discovers a box of long-forgotten boyhood treasures in her apartment and decides to return it, anonymously, to its original owner. She learns from the reaction of the box's owner, now a grown man, that she can turn people's lives around through simple interventions. Thus begins Amélie's crusade to help her neighbors, a project in benign emotional voyeurism that allows her to participate in others' lives while maintaining her anonymity as a shield against true social interaction. During the course of her activities, she crosses paths with Nino Quincampoix, an odd young man in whom she sees a kindred spirit. Amélie must then decide if she has the courage to expose herself to the terrors of real intimacy or if she will continue to flirt with the society around her.

Because Amélie's Paris is as untroubled by social ills as Woody Allen's New York, the film is free to revel in the delightful and largely harmless eccentricities of its characters, perfectly offset by the offbeat charms of the working-class 10th arrondissement between the Gare de l'Est and the Canal St Martin. The result is a collection of characters for whom moviegoers easily develop sympathies. Amélie herself is an extremely likable heroine whose psychopathologies are so non-threatening as to be adorable. Actress Audrey Tautou's off-kilter cuteness is perfect for the role, and her mobile, expressive face is the key to her success in portraying a quiet but intense character who has little spoken dialogue. American fans of French cinema will be pleasantly surprised by Matthieu Kassovitz as the hapless Nino, as many of them will remember Kassovitz as a vicious skinhead thug seething with anger and aggression in 1995's La Haine (English title: Hate), a film which he both wrote and directed--and which portrays a very different Paris than that in Amélie. Fans of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet will also be happy to see Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon, who plays a man who repeatedly drives his lovers away with his possessiveness.

Jeunet, who could be considered French cinema's Tim Burton, has a talent for creating surreal atmospheres that reconcile the sinister with the charming, as demonstrated in his first acclaimed film Delicatessen (1991). In 1995's La cité des enfants perdus (1995) Jeunet not only preserved the underlying menace of fairy tales, but also their wonder. As in these previous French films, Jeunet increases our sense of the magical in Amélie by using supersaturated colors that give light and shadow an almost velvety texture, and, like Tim Burton, Jeunet's soundtrack evokes music boxes and accordions--sounds that heighten nostalgia and dampen reality.

In Amélie, Jeunet chooses to indulge his love of the charming over his fascination with the sinister, and even moments that should be characterized as black comedy surrender their bite to the film's childlike sweetness. Nastiness is never allowed to take root, even when dealing with such issues as childhood torment, death in the family, and marital infidelity. Surprisingly, Amélie largely avoids being saccharine. Several moments, however, do cross the line, especially when Jeunet relies on special effects in an effort to depict intense moments or internal conflict. The skills of the cast and the voiceover narration are more than sufficient to clue an audience in to the characters' emotions, and Jeunet's attempts to heighten key moments and infuse magic realism into the movie--for instance, by making inanimate objects talk, or punctuating a moment of extreme disappointment by having Amélie dissolve into a puddle of water--seem redundant and gimmicky.

In sum, Amélie, if not as interesting as Jeunet's previous French outings, is the rare crowd-pleaser that avoids being insipid. Whether or not Amélie deserves an Oscar is debatable, but it undoubtedly deserves three stars for being good entertainment.

Three stars.

Simma Park is a writer and designer living in New York. She writes regularly on film for Culturekiosque.

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