Amelie (2001)

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

Director – Jean-Pierre Jeunet; writer – Guillaume Laurant and Jean-Pierre Jeunet; director of photography - Bruno Delbonnel; editor - Hervé Schneid; music - Yann Tiersen; producer - Claudie Ossard. Starring - Audrey Tautou (Amélie), Mathieu Kassovitz (Nino Quicampoix), Rufus (Raphael Poulain), Yolande Moreau (Madeleine Wallace), Arthus de Penguern (Hipolito), Urbain Cancellier (Collignon), Dominique Pinon (Joseph), Serge Merlin (Dufayel) and Flora Guiet (young Amélie). Miramax Zoë. 120 minutes. This film is rated R.

“She’ll change your life,” boasts the movie poster.

Amélie tells the story of an introverted, creative, impulsive young girl who discovers the joy of performing anonymous good deeds for lonely, despondent, troubled souls.

If this sounds like the premise to Pay It Forward or other sentimental, emotionally-manipulative tearjerkers, trust me – this is something entirely different. Amélie has more in common with fantasies, fairy tales, and fables than preachy New Age propaganda.

Amélie is a meddler, not a missionary. She’s shy, but she earnestly wants to help people. So instead of marching up and helping them, she sneaks around behind their backs and sets up things that unfold like miracles. As the inspired and awed recipients get all teary-eyed at the blessings, she slips away, already busy with something else. She’s a wascally wabbit, and Paris is her garden.

Enchanting special effects make Amélie’s Paris a postcard-worthy place, and magic seems to follow her as though it’s part of daily life. When her heart breaks, she literally melts into a splash and a puddle of colors. When she’s asleep, the paintings of barnyard animals on her bedroom walls talk to each other. And when she falls suddenly and drastically in love, her palpitating heart shines visibly right through her jacket.

The film is directed by the visually inventive Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children). Jeunet is one of the most extraordinarily talented imaginations working on the big canvas today, and one of his strengths is his ability to make his characters unforgettable within moments of introducing them. He has a gift for noticing what makes a person unique and comical without making them cartoonish. These fanciful folk have hearts and souls, and his effects-heavy style accentuates their characteristics in ways that make you laugh even as you learn to love each one. (I even cared about the villains in his last film, City of Lost Children, and hated to see them go.)

This time Jeunet has the privilege of introducing moviegoers to an actress with mesmerizing presence and great potential… Audrey Tautou. Right away I was reminded of Audrey Hepburn’s spark even as the quiet manner and sly smile made me think of Juliette Binoche. Her performance as the grownup version of Amélie swings between outrageous and subtle, shy and hyperactive, hushed and hilarious.

Amelie’s relentless energy and optimism might be a turn-off to some. But she’s the latest in a long tradition of fantasy heroes. There’s a bit of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in her adventuresome spirit, Mary Poppins in her persistent goodness, Robin Hood in her charitable conspiracies.

There is also something beautiful about the way she focuses a ferocious attention on everything and everybody, seeking and finding each individual’s specific virtues and specific sadness. Some films move the viewer to join a cause or donate to a charitable organization – Amélie encourages us to get to know our neighbors and try to meet their most secret needs. She shows us how a little act of love can sometimes penetrate the hardest of hearts.

Now, it’s would be irresponsible to overlook the questionable ethics of Amélie’s good deeds. While she knows better than to address complicated problems with Forrest Gump-ish platitudes, her good intentions compel her to morally questionable endeavors. In her hurry to give hope and happiness to a heartbroken neighbor, she concocts a fanciful lie. Well-intentioned lies might leave others smiling, but they provide false hope and put the believers at risk of humiliation and disillusionment. Her endeavors are often designed to inspire a happiness based on sentimentality and nostalgia, which falls short of an investment that might have led to a deeper kind of joy. And worst of all, Amelie’s sympathy for the suffering provokes her to set dangerous traps for those who offend her. No amount of goodwill justifies breaking and entering someone else’s apartment to rig accidents that scare, bewilder, and endanger them.

Still, I am inspired by Amélie’s ability to care for the oddballs of society, and her intense desire to bring them happiness, even if they never discover the identity of their “guardian angel.” When she does the right thing, she’s a beautiful picture of grace.

Jeunet’s film is an ambitious, rich, and rewarding experience, packed end-to-end with delightful creativity, more satisfying and less indulgent than his previous epic The City of Lost Children, in which the style overwhelmed the substance. My wife and I found it a romantic, laugh-out-loud date movie, and we left the theatre imagining just what kind of surprises we might be capable of giving to unsuspecting souls in our own communities.

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