Amélie (2001)

2009-08-24 11:58

As the pixie faced Audrey Tautou continues her way to Hollywood stardom in the new fashion biopic, Coco avant Chanel, we take a look at the surprise hit movie that melted hearts and made her a household name in the process.

Amélie is quite honestly as near perfect a film can be. It’s sweet and twee without being cloying, and is as beautiful as Paris seen through the eyes of one who is newly in love. Along with introducing Audrey Tautou, it opened the ears of many people (myself included) to the sublime music of Yann Tiersen, a composer whose dark and playful work wouldn’t sound out of place at a wake in a circus.

If you’ve not seen it, Amélie tells the story of a daydreaming young woman working in a Paris café. One day she discovers a very old tin box of childhood trinkets behind a loose tile in her flat, and vows to return it to the little boy who lost it. Upon its return, she is so moved by the now grown owner’s joy, she vows to be a positive influence in the lives of people around her.

This might sound like the soppiest story ever, but Amélie’s childlike heart and the film’s visual flair make it hard not to be drawn into her dreamy world. Whether she is seeing herself in an old black and white newsreel on TV as the patron saint of the lost, or having a mysterious stranger leaning out of a window providing her with a witty remark for conversation, her world is far more magical and inviting than ours.

Her attempts at social manipulation are the sort of whimsical things that rarely happen in the real world – getting an airline steward friend to photograph her father’s beloved garden gnome in tourist destinations around the globe, using rumour and innuendo to bring a neurotic couple together, and on a darker note, sabotaging the home of her local grocer for belittling his young assistant. As amusing as these situations are, they’re also conceptually brilliant in their simplicity.

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has directed some of France’s most beautiful films (Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children), and the dream-like Paris he paints is amazing. Every shot is composed like a lush painting, in shades of yellow and green, like a nostalgic childhood memory of a visit to the park on a sunny day.

Amélie’s view of the world is touching enough, but like any great movie, there is far more to it than a mere trip down memory lane. Amélie herself is lonely – at the beginning of the film she is drifting, unfocused, but then she finds her groove – helping others. As her (and our) journey progresses, she realises that anonymous acts of kindness won’t fill the hole in her own heart, and she begins to look for love, leaping into the real world, perhaps for the first time in her young life.

As her own plans are coming to fruition, she begins a cat-and-mouse courting ritual with the similarly whimsical Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), giving us the second half’s achingly beautiful love story.

Even though much of it takes place in her imagination (witness her flight of fantasy in explaining why Nino is late for a meeting), she is just as vulnerable and nervous as a shy teenager, making us feel far more for her than we would for a cartoonish figure with her head in the clouds.

Their love grows through a series of wordless games, complete with treasure hunts, cryptic notes, and mysterious photos. Between incidents we see their uncertainty, but their interactions are all dream-like and otherworldly, casting the blossoming love in an extraordinary light. Scenes like the one in which Nino caresses her face on the ghost train while wearing his skeleton costume (they’ve not spoken yet) is straight out of some weird fairytale – half psychedelic head trip and half gothic romance. Despite being an idealised dream affair, Jeunet keeps it grounded and their flirtation carries an astonishing amount of emotional weight.

The end is a cathartic release, like waking from a wonderful dream, invigorated and with new faith in the world. It’s rare movie that can make me feel that way (being a hardened fan of horror and gross-out comedy) without being too sugary, but Amélie does it with ease.

Although I loved the stylised fantasy and absurd humour of Jeunet’s other hits, repeated watches stripped them of their mystique until they felt more like collections of skillfully crafted vignettes rather than complete stories. By dialling back the craziness and injecting Amélie with the romance Paris is famed for, he created his undisputed masterpiece. He tried to follow it up with A Very Long Engagement, also starring Audrey Tautou, but its convoluted plot and epic running time made it a far less satisfying experience.

I would recommend Amélie to everyone, regardless of whether they ever watch foreign language films or romances. It has something for everyone, and is exceptional on every level. If you aren’t blown away, you don’t have a heart and were never a child. Simple as that.

A little bit of trivia: [from IMDB]

- The full French title of the movie is Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain, which translates as "The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain".

- The part of Amélie was written specifically for British actress Emily Watson. She wanted the part but had to decline because she didn't speak French and had already agreed to do Gosford Park.
- Jean-Pierre Jeunet originally wanted Michael Nyman to score the film, but was unable to get him. Someone then gave Jeunet a CD by Yann Tiersen, who composes in a similar minimalist style, but with an extremely quirky, eclectic mix of instruments. Jeunet fell in love with the music and scored the film largely with existing pieces by Tiersen, for which he bought the rights. In addition, Tiersen wrote an original main theme, "La Valse d'Amelie," which was recorded in numerous variations and used throughout the film.
- Audrey Tautou doesn't know how to skip stones; the stone-skipping scenes were made with special effects.
- The travelling gnome was inspired by a rash of similar pranks played in England and France in the 1990s. In 1997, a French court convicted the leader of Front de Libération des Nains de Jardins (Garden Gnome Liberation Front) of stealing over 150 gnomes. The idea was later used in an advertising campaign for an Internet travel agency.
- Whenever this film was shot on location, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and the crew would clean the area of debris, grime, trash and graffiti, so that the film would match his fantasy more so. This was an especially difficult task when it came time to shoot at the huge train station.

Memorable quotes:

Narrator: Amélie still seeks solitude. She amuses herself with silly questions about the world below, such as "How many people are having an orgasm right now?"
[scenes of various orgasms taking place]
Amélie: [to the camera] Fifteen.

Man in photo: She is in love.
Nino Quincampoix: I don't even know her!
Man in photo: Oh, you know her.
Nino Quincampoix: Since when?
Man in photo: Since always. In your dreams.

[to blind man] Let me help you. Step down. Here we go! The drum major's widow! She's worn his coat since the day he died. The horse's head has lost an ear! That's the florist laughing. He has crinkly eyes. In the bakery window, lollipops. Smell that! They're giving out melon slices! Sugarplum, ice cream! We're passing the park butcher. Ham, 79 francs. Spareribs, 45! Now the cheese shop. Picadors are 12.90. Cabecaus 23.50. A baby's watching a dog that's watching the chickens. Now we're at the kiosk by the metro. I'll leave you here. Bye!

Pixie-cute and heart-warming, this French hit catapulted Audrey Tatou to stardom and made romantic comedies less of a swear word.

galamatias 2009/08/23 10:15 AM
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Congratulations! You've finally chosen an actual classic ( who chooses these things anyway?) The beauty of this film is its sense of childlike innocent fun and wonder. Audrey Tautou is brilliant (but she is the scion of Christ anyway, no surprise that Amelie does what she does). All of Jeunot's films are worth watching, especially the superior A Very Long Engagement and Delicatessen. And if you like Pan's Labyrinth try City of Lost Children. You may want to approach Alien Resurrection with caution though.
Rochelle 2009/08/27 9:58 PM
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I love this movie!! It is a really refreshing piece of art - and it is a movie you can watch over and over again because there is always something new that you didn't notice the first five times!! LOVE the travelling gnome - wish someone would could send me on a "tour" like that!!
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