Originally Reviewed – 9/24/2011
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet wasn’t always such a playful guy.
Sure, the director will forever be linked to his most popular film, Amelie, a story about a charming young woman’s search for love, courage and serenity in modern day Paris but Jeunet wasn’t always so cheerful. His first two films, 1991’s Delicatessen and 1995’s The City of Lost Children were bleak visions of a future that had its inhabitants stealing dreams from children, suffering from famine and slaughtering people ala Sweeny Todd. Even his one foray into Hollywood directing, 1997’s misguided Alien Resurrection was dark in tone. So imagine everybody’s surprise when in 2001, Jeunet broke free from long time directing partner Marc Cano and released a sweet romantic comedy starring then unknown Audrey Tautou. The response? Not only did the film end up on many critics Best Of lists, it managed to gross over seventeen times its initial budget and snag five Academy Award nominations along the way. French cinema was suddenly very cool. Now, over ten years later, Amelie stands out as one of the finest films of the past decade, creating a world of magic, whimsy and sweet simplicity.
Amelie, as a film, is really broken out into two parts. The first part is her role as an arm’s length matchmaker and guardian angel. Throughout the movie, Amelie learns there’s great joy to be had in helping others and finds herself flitting about Paris providing silent assistance to people who didn’t realize they needed it. From walking with a blind stranger to describe the world around him to hooking up a customer and coworker at the restaurant where she works to convincing her widowed father to see the world via a globetrotting garden gnome, Amelie revels in the helping of others. However, all this worldly insight means nothing when it comes to her own relationships and that leads to the charming and sometimes maddening cat and mouse game of the second part, where she pursues, in a number of ingenious ways, a strange young man. Most people fall in love with the Amelie character due to her playful nature and love of the simplistic pleasures life has to offer, but it’s here where we start to get a bit annoyed with her. While this is a credit to how well the character is written and how much we come to really root for her, there’s many a moment when I yelled, “Just talk to him!!” at the movie. Her indecision and constantly escalating mechanisms work as a plot device and are charming in their own way but the game runs a bit too long before the eventual ending.
Luckily for the film, that’s my only criticism as the rest of the movie is truly fantastic. In the role of Amelie, the person we all wish we could be, Audrey Tautou is magnificent in a part nobody else on this planet could probably play. While many fans remember her playful smile, beautiful big eyes and magnetic personality, the character of Amelie is much more complex than people realize. Although Amelie finds inner piece in being the silent matchmaker, she sacrifices her own happiness in the process, creating a character that remains relatable throughout the diabetes inducing plotline. It’s a subtle trick, but an effective one. Luckily for us, the character Tautou creates glazes everything with a lighthearted sheen even when she’s at her most maddening and her most devious. Again, most remember the sweet French girl that does some amazingly creative boy chasing but Amelie has a devious side as well, especially when driving a particularly nasty food grocer to near madness via a series of practical jokes. It’s this balance that helps us stay connected to a character that teeters on the edge but never exceeds to the point of parody.
And of course, nobody can talk intelligently about a Jeunet film without discussing some of the most brilliantly unique cinematography in all of filmmaking. With his old directing partner Marc Cano, his previous efforts had a dark pallor to them but in Amelie, unhinged from his long time collaborator, Jeunet opens up the color palette to astonishing levels. Everything in Amelie is over-real, thanks to some ingenious camerawork and sets so brightly saturated with color, it’s almost impossible to take it all in during one viewing. Amelie is pure visual eye candy, helping to create a surreal world that’s almost dreamlike in its composition, important in a film where two people communicate via chalk arrows and signs reading, “Who Are You”.
When all is said and done, Amelie is a film about following one’s passions, no matter how small or how big they may seem. From the simple pleasure of skipping stones on a pond to popping bubble paper to more grand aspirations like traveling the world and falling in love, Amelie treats all of these pursuits with an even keel. Some critics deride this film as being too sweet, too saccharine, too whimsical and that, in a word, is hogwash. The sad fact is, those people are simply too embittered to appreciate the joy pouring out of every frame this movie has to offer. From the opening frames of a young Amelie playing childish games to a final encounter that chokes me up every damn time I see it, Amelie is a small wonder, a movie so full of life, it makes you want to seek out those tiny little treasures yourself. In the end, life in Amelie is full of small miracles, miracles we can find for ourselves if we only take a second and look.
Score – 90%