Guaranteed Happiness: Amelie

As I mentioned recently, I came 2nd in the Lamb’s So You Think You Can Review tournament. This was one of the films I reviewed for that competition, but as it was on the List as well I figureed I’d use it here too. All praise recycling!In 1997, after having made two successful, distinctly stylised French films with his co-director Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet popped over to Hollywood to make Alien: Resurrection, a film widely regarded as one of the worst sequels ever to appear on the big screen. You’d have to go a long way to find someone who liked it, and I’d suggest you don’t start with me. Upon returning to his home town of Paris, Jeunet found himself seeing the once-familiar city with fresh eyes, and set out to make a film that would reflect the magic and beauty he had rediscovered. That film is Amélie.

Telling the story of Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou), a girl with an overactive imagination but an undernourished heart who develops a taste for bringing happiness into the lives of the people around her, this isa delightful, light-hearted chocolate-box fantasy romance that only occasionally threatens to choke you on its saccharine sweetness. Amélie herself is a wonderful creation, despite her less-than-wonderful upbringing. She was raised by a military physician father (Rufus) and schoolmistress mother (Lorella Cravotta). Her only physical contact with another life form was the annual check-up provided by her father. Such unaccustomed moments of intimacy caused her heart to beat faster, which her Dad diagnosed as being a heart defect, so kept his daughter at home, away from the other children. This, along with a suicidal goldfish and a childhood tragedy, gave Amélie a unique perspective on life that she would carry on into adulthood, where she works as a waitress in a corner cafe in Montmartre alongside its rogues’ gallery of eccentric staff and clientele.
A chance reaction to the death of Princess Diana leads Amélie to discover a treasure trove left by her apartment’s previous inhabitants, so she sets about planning to return the childhood trinkets. She revels in the feeling of harmony she gets from helping others, be they strangers or regular players within her life – though she isn’t close enough to anyone to really call them a friend. Along the way she crosses paths with Nino Quincampoix (Mattieu Kassovitz, director of the seminal La Haine), and finds herself falling in love with this fellow outcast who skips in time to her own offbeat pace, yet her life so far – devoid of affection, interaction and intimacy – ensures that theirs will not be the smoothest of romantic relationships.
From the opening credits – featuring a young Amélie (Flora Guiet) engaging in a variety of nostalgia-inducing childhood antics including peeling dried glue from her fingers and making her hand into a puppet – it is clear this film is a genuine heart-warmer, yet imbued with a tinge of sadness. For all of Amélie’s boundless levels of enjoyment, you can’t help but notice that as a child she was always alone. The film delights in making the ordinary extraordinary, for example by looking at the events occurring simultaneously with Amélie’s birth – a fly being run over, two wine glasses dancing on a wind-buoying tablecloth, a man erasing his deceased friend’s name from his phonebook. Alone, these individual events are almost mundane, but together they contain every aspect of life, from the tender to the tragic.
Though it was released six years before the term was coined, this film displays a unique perspective on the manic pixie dream girl mythology, as we see the film almost entirely from the point of view of said fantastical creature. In more traditional films, the character of Amélie would be the love interest in Nino’s story, and not the other way around, and she’d be played by Zooey Deschanel. If anything, he is a typical leading man archetype, an eccentric loner, working a job he hates to fund an obscure passion project, just waiting for the girl of his dreams to stumble into his life and turn it upside down, yet thankfully this is not his story, he is the supporting player and it is with his influence that Amélie finds her life being disrupted, just as she disrupts those around her.
Tautou is absolutely perfect as the eponymous mirth-maker. Gifted with the role of a title character and appearing in almost every scene yet with barely any dialogue, Tautou manages to express every emotion going through her exceptionally beautiful brown eyes, body language and face framed with a Louise Brooks bob. Interestingly, the role was originally written with Emily Watson in mind, but I think even she would have struggled to match Tautou’s blend of purity, yearning and a rare, beguiling charm. Be it when she is skimming stones, cracking a crème brulee or suppressing laughter during an early attempt at intercourse, Tautou is exquisite in the role she will probably always be best known for. Her delivery of the line “I am nobody’s little weasel” almost brings me to tears.
As usual with any Jeunet picture, the cinematography is beautiful. The colour scheme is heavily influenced by Brazilian artist Juarez Machado, particularly the use of rich browns, oranges and reds for the interior shots. A glowing orange outline will reveal a hidden key, or a glowing heart, and Jeunet’s elaborate camerawork lovingly follows faces, feet and hands as they go about their day, picking up stones and placing them in pockets for future skimming sessions. Some have shunned Jeunet’s debris-free vision of Paris, devoid of litter, ethnic diversity and graffiti, but at heart this is a whimsical fairytale, seen through the filter of its titular pixie’s naive, twee imagination, within which the harshest crimes are committed verbally, and easily remedied with Amélie’s own brand of karmic vengeance. In this world, garden gnomes can travel the world, lamps have nocturnal discussions with photographs of dogs and beggars refuse to accept money on a Sunday, as they are taking the day off.
Though the overarching narrative is one of romance, it is the comedy of the film that really shines through, predominantly from the cast of quirky characters that litter the screen, most of whom are played by actors from other Jeunet works. Be it the bathroom encounter of the hypochondriac Georgette (Isabelle Nanty) and the embittered Joseph (Dominique Pinon), the comeuppance of the bullish greengrocer Collignon (Urbain Cancelier) or a mistaken phonecall to an adult store during which our heroine is informed that “Fur pie doesn’t sell,” the comedic moments are many and varied. Yann Tiersen’s accordion-rich score is ever-so-French (I’m listening to it as I write, my feet have yet to stop tapping) and the occasional use of offbeat instrumentation such as a typewriter and bicycle chains further increases the levels of whimsy, as if that were even possible.
In my opinion, the best kind of film is one that leaves the viewer wanting to be a better person, and that is certainly the case here. The morals of Amélie are clear: be kind to others, be yourself, and enjoy the little things.
Choose film 10/10
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5 thoughts on “Guaranteed Happiness: Amelie

  1. I saw the name of this review pop up on my feed and I smiled. "Guaranteed Happiness," indeed. I don't know anyone who didn't like this film at least a little bit. I've shown it to a film class and have seen everyone smiling at the end. Damn, but I like this film a lot.

  2. I love this film. I gave it five out of five stars in my own review. The only thing I'll add to what you wrote here is to suggest the next time you see it, watch the childhood antics of Amelie in the opening credits that you mentioned. Her actions actually mimic the jobs of the people who are appearing in the credits (i.e. hanging cherries over her ears when the costuming credit appears.)

  3. Huh, I never noticed that. I loved when they did that in the closing credits of Pixar's Up, with the different scouting badges reflecting the various credits, but that was a bit more on-the-nose that in Amelie. I'll keep a look out, thanks.

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