Amélie (2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Somewhere on the internet right now, a person is yelling about the films of Wes Anderson, which are firmly in a tradition of French New Wave and Ealing Studios comedy going back three quarters of a century, being overly “twee.” Chances are that person either doesn’t remember Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie or hasn’t looked at it in a while. Alas, Amélie has a distinction that none of Anderson’s films share: it’s well on its way to becoming a modern classic, or at least a universally safe and widely recommended title among internet film buffs. Well, we’re not trying to be mean, but nuts to all that.
Amélie is the story of a precocious adolescent loner who grows up to be a sophisticated, content but somewhat anxious young woman (Audrey Tautou, an actress Montgomery Burns would call “that one who’s always standing and looking”) badgering the neighbors for cute recipes, petting cute animals, seeing cute things and thinking cuter things. Also paintings, arts and crafts, yarn and glue, and colors, so many colors. Amélie finds trinkets in a box. Amélie goes on a cute journey across cute Paris to find the cute owner of the cute things. Somehow this all changes everything, because she realizes what a splendid uniter of people she can be by matching people with what she feels to be their secret yearnings. Meanwhile, there’s a cute mystery she must solve for her own benefit, with the occasional assistance of a cute old man in her cute building — it all involves discarded photo booth pictures, all featuring the same person. Are you beside yourself with glee yet?
Jeunet’s shooting style is best described as “pretty” — the excessive kind you might see in a particularly busy candy shop window. The film was made in France, but like so many foreign pictures on the IMDB top 250, it seems uniquely targeted for an worldwide audience (and it will not surprise you to learn it was picked up for American distribution by Miramax) — its careful, big bold earmarks directing us to its sights and sounds and highly emphatic story points make it ideal for someone who hasn’t seen many subtitled films. Not only is its story relatively easy to follow, its sensibility is familiar to anyone who knows much about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl ideal or the general aesthetic of magical realism. Except mostly magic and not much realism. It’s so cutesy it hurts the teeth, like a Wings album or a Scrubs episode. Add this to the general exoticism of a film half-conceived as travelogue.
Have you ever watched a grim European-made film, like Bicycle Thieves, in a roomful of Baby Boomers who see nothing but the glorious locations? Have you ever found yourself seeing something like Certified Copy, Before Midnight or To Catch a Thief and unable to shake the sense that you were really watching a vacation video? Amélie captures the same feeling, only with the oohing and cooing audience built in. Jeunet is delighted by such indulgences, even when they have little to do with his story. He loves to make things garish and kooky and wildly on-the-nose; the word “quirky,” the word “precious,” the word “twee” were all made for his film. His visual style and storytelling sensibility are pastry-sticky sweet — wildly amusing in a merry-go-round sort of way, like taking in all the cotton candy just before mounting the Zipper, or listening to the Cars’ Greatest Hits instead of one of their albums, and unless you’re in the target market you’ll get more than enough after five or ten minutes. Even if you are the sort of person bound to be charmed by Jeunet’s bright shiny excesses, it’s probable that by the end you’ll be too exhausted or numb to feel as exhiliarated as the director would like.
There are certain strands of Amélie’s story even we cynics can sort of appreciate, the hard candy somewhere under the whipped-cream dross. (Amélie works in a coffee shop, not a bakery, one of the few concessions to the real-world drab.) Among the title character’s schemes to lift others out of a universal funk is one that involves her stealing a lawn gnome from her dad’s place and sending him postcards that incorporate its visage against landmark backdrops, the idea being that he’ll be newly energized after too much time without traveling far beyond his home. That would be a sweet idea if it hadn’t become an ad campaign — an inexcusable indulgence, probably wrought by Miramax — and you know, went somewhere; instead it’s discarded. Meanwhile, for anyone with a level of curiosity about and open-minded love toward the world around them, the intrigue surrounding the errant photo booth remnants is fun, including the head-slapping but delightful resolution. There’s a difference between being amused and delighted by the world and dancing around madly at every loopy second about the madcap loveliness and puppy dog cheekbone sweet lilac glory of it all.
There’s something to be said for Amélie as an exploration of a shy but basically good-natured person’s inner world, but my god, it’d be nice if it had a little more restaint — most introspective people are a bit lower-key than this, you realize. The film’s attitude toward sex is unreservedly refreshing, though, with Amélie wanting and longing for it and making no apology for doing so, a welcome human element in so much delectable frothiness; an American film would almost certainly have botched that so terribly. But despite its florid prettiness, it just feels excessively saccharine, especially in the entirely unnecessary opening exposition, and clearly believes that artificial quirks seemingly chosen out of a hat (he likes rocking chairs! she likes electric blankets!) are a replacement for organic characterization. It gives you the sort of sick feeling the Beatles described in “Savoy Truffle.” The sweat is gonna fill your ‘ead, indeed. This is such a waste given that it would be so much more robust as a story, a character study, a film if Amélie were made to feel like a substantive character, weren’t just built on eyebrow-raised shorthand.
More specifically, it’s difficult to understand how and why the film posits that Amélie is “helping” make the world a better place with her silly little mishaps at all. One episode involves her hooking up a coworker of hers with a clearly awful man who’s terrible for her (and everyone), the sort of guy who monitors his girlfriends (and the women he wishes were his girlfriends) with tape recorder in tow, haunting their workplace and making himself a menace. Sorry, but only a male writer could conceive such skeevy behavior as the basis for a romantic subplot. (To the film’s credit, it doesn’t seem to work out very well, a few sweaty liaisons in the kitchen aside, but this too is discarded as comic relief; Jeunet doesn’t let it interfere with his thesis about his heroine, which is sort of infuriating.)
Worse yet, and in the film’s most irredeemable plot point, Amélie is permitted to inspire undeserved worship in a woman toward her dead, cheating husband by forging a lost letter from him owning up to his trangressions and swearing that he really loved her all along. This Sylvia Browne-like lie is so menacingly vile it ought to take any thinking or compassionate person out of the film. It’s akin to telling the parents of a violent crime victim that it’s all OK because s/he is in Heaven now. It’s a blanket refusal to allowing a woman with obvious depressive, decades-spanning issues of grief and regret to seriously move along with her life. It’s a deplorable salve on a complex emotional matter. It’s disgusting, and does not belong in a film that tries to make flighty feed-goodery its major contribution to the world. And finally, although it’s meant here to be elegant and minimal, the meeting of Amelie with her beau-to-be Mathieu Kassovitz (bizarrely, the director of the gritty sociopolitical firebomb La Haine) consists of a wordless exchange (pre-blowjob) with what look like two scared animals sizing one another up. It may sound like sour grapes, but all the good first dates I’ve had were ones where we, like, talked.
The conflict of sweet-and-terrible at the core of Amélie is most quickly illustrated by the scene in which she takes a blind man across the street. Her rapid-fire descriptions of the world around them are lovely and humorous. But then Jeunet zooms in on the bewildered gentleman from far above and inexplicably covers him in some gold-colored CGI to reflect this “magic” or something. Using every bell and whistle at your disposal instead of just following your instincts is a mark of laziness, not creativity. Why couldn’t Jeunet had dialed it back a bit? Okay, a lot? He had something visually and emotionally resonant buried in this. He drowns it in marshmallows and wrongheaded sentiment, and when you brush all that away it feels like there’s nothing left. This is the sort of “polite” foreign-language film that gives the Oscar cult of arthouse cinema such a dreadfully bad name — for now it seems to remain popular with audiences, but I suspect its time is limited.