Like the similarly acclaimed Moulin Rouge!, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie is a whimsical, hyperactive, self-aware, lavishly overdesigned fantasy-romance, set in a retro, fairy-tale Paris, about a tender young idealist who falls in love with a sex-industry employee — but there the similarities end.
Seriously, the two films do have less in common than the above summary might suggest, and if you liked or disliked one of the two films, that may not be much help predicting whether you’ll like or dislike the other. Some people will like or dislike both films for the same reasons; others will like one and dislike the other, for reasons as individual as each of these unique, creative, problematic films.
I was intrigued by Moulin Rouge!’s energy and daring, but put off by its emotional hollowness and decadent milieu. For me, Amélie benefits from the comparison. Amélie herself (Audrey Tautou in a star-making turn) is more winsome than than either Christian or Satine from Moulin Rouge!; her daffy behind-the-scenes philanthropy puts to shame Christian’s airy jaw about Freedom, Beauty, Truth, and Love, and her flighty flirtation with Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz) has more real human emotion than the oh-so sincere operatic duets of Moulin Rouge!’s doomed lovers.
Amélie charms with its breezy, stylized storytelling, its quirky flights of fancy, its wish-fulfillment meting-out of blessings to the sympathetic and punishments to the nasty, and, above all, the wide eyes and breathless expression of Audrey Tautou, whose first name is not the only reason she’s sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Audrey Hepburn.
Its liabilities include a slightly dragged-out resolution and a rather amoral view of sexuality, evinced both by its approach to the male love-interest’s trashy line of work and by the way characters tend to have sex as their first real expression of romantic interest in each other, without even so much as an intervening conversation or date in which to get to know one another.
Like Jane Austen’s Emma (and Valley-Girl knockoff Clueless), Amélie is about a young woman, in this case a Parisienne waitress, who meddles furtively with other people’s hearts and lives while remaining oblivious to the needs of her own heart. Amélie’s motives are always benevolent; even when she plays a series of entertainingly nasty pranks on a neighbor who owns a grocery shop, she’s ultimately moved by compassion for a much-abused clerk who suffers under the ill-tempered grocer’s cruelty.
Eventually, like Emma, Amélie must come to terms with the necessity of living her own life — though (as someone recently observed to me) she’s never forced, as Emma was, to confront the fact that meddling in other people’s lives can lead to disaster as well as triumph. In Amélie, it seems, the world tends always to be better off, or at least no worse, for the heroine’s meddling. Even if the happy fruits of her actions aren’t always long-lived, that seems to be attributed to the individuals involved, who couldn’t make the most of the opportunities Amélie afforded them.
Amélie is a celebration of life, of the wonder of the world, of joie de vivre. Perhaps to position his film as a postmodern fairy tale, Jeunet takes the tragic death of Lady Diana, the premier fairy-tale figure of our era, as a kind of touchstone. Amélie and other characters watch and discuss TV coverage of the fatal car crash and aftermath, and Amélie’s shock over Lady Di’s death is actually directly related to her decision to become a kind of guardian angel to those around her.
In this movie, life is to be lived, and the great tragedy is to be cut off, shut in, limited, confined. An antisocial widower staying at home in the company of a garden gnome and a monument to his deceased wife… an elderly, physically brittle painter whose sole pursuits are spying on his neighbors and obsessively replicating the same Renoir again and again… a neurotic misanthrope who lives in the confines of his twisted imagination and confides his inner life to a hand-held tape recorder… these are people in need of Amélie’s special help — people who need to have their horizons broadened, to be awakened to the wonder of life.
On the other hand, that mysterious young man who always seems to be fishing for something under those passport-photo booths in public places… whatever can he be about? Here is an individual with some sort of passion, someone interested in something outside himself and his own narrow world. He’s practically the only person Amélie meets who doesn’t seem to need her help — and the only one who awakens in her any awareness of anything lacking in her own life.
Even so, Amélie is put off, though only briefly, by the young man’s employment in a sex shop offering peep shows and various forms of pornography. The extreme crudity with which she is greeted the first time she tries to make phone contact with Nino vividly illustrates the corrosiveness of the environment in which he works; yet she very quickly concludes (and the movie seems to expect the audience to agree) that it doesn’t really matter, that the important thing here is for her to pursue her special connection with this young man.
I was unconvinced. Few lines in Moulin Rouge! made as much sense as the advice, "Never fall in love with a woman who sells herself." Similarly, a man whose business jargon includes the kind of gutter talk Amélie hears on the phone is unlikely to have much respect for women, and presumptively lacks the moral character one would look for in a worthy beau.
Yet, though Amélie has no countervailing positive indications regarding Nino’s moral character, and in fact knows virtually nothing about him beyond his unusual hobby, the movie romanticizes their eventual sexual union in a jarringly abrupt morning-after bedroom scene, the culmination of a prolonged but remote flirtation that was all fleeting glances and virtually anonymous exchanges.
Why did the filmmakers go this route? Granted, Amélie is so nearly silent throughout much of the film — she almost evokes a silent-film heroine — that a talky date scene or heart-to-heart conversation would be an unthinkable misstep. Yet instead of a sudden morning-after scene, why not rather give the audience (for example) a giddy, wordless montage of Amélie and Nino variously at the amusement park (riding the carousel and eating cotton candy), at the movies (Amélie’s eyes for once on the screen rather than on the people behind her), eating at restaurants, walking in the park, peering together through that telescope thing, even playing some of Amélie’s benevolent practical jokes? Something, anything to suggest that these two lovely young people, whatever instantaneous connection may have initially drawn them to one another, proceeded to enter into an actual human relationship in which they got to know one another, as opposed to heading straight for the bedroom.
The film’s fable-like fantasy flavor goes some way toward
Some of these worthwhile bits are pure artifice, including Jeunet’s paintbox Paris, digitally free of graffiti and colorful as the landscape of Oz. Others are pure reality, notably some arrestingly odd sequences we see as a part of Amélie’s campaign to draw a neighbor out of his self-imposed rut — a campaign that has a similar effect on the viewer. Watching these strange and wonderful real-life images, one really is struck by the strangeness and wonder of the world. Amélie is full of this sense of strangeness and wonder.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.