Jen Malone returns to 10YA with her fittingly whimsical and wise review of Amélie, a film about characters in search of and obsessed with stories, and which inspired proto-hipsters to love both photobooths and gnomes.
Imagine, if you will: a young girl is brought up in a household in which all physical affection is withheld from her (so much so, that her rapid heartbeat upon physical examination leads her father to believe she possesses a serious heart condition). She has no siblings, no friends. Her parents remain distant and cold. Her playmates, thanks to her understandably overactive imagination, include a neighbor who is in a coma, and an adorably depressive imaginary crocodile, which she doctors. At age seven or so, this youngster watches her mother die in a freak accident, narrowly escaping with her own life. For the remainder of her youth, this girl’s primary companion is her father, who devotes the majority of his time to the obsessive creation of a be-gnomed garden shrine to his late wife.
Let’s be honest. In our world, this girl would grow up to be a sociopath.
Instead, in the cinematic wonderland of the French film Amélie (or, as it is officially — and exhaustingly — titled, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain/The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain), this girl grows up to be a lovable waif with an almost disturbingly mischievous smile, a wardrobe destined to inspire emo kids everywhere (the shoes, they are so…heavy…), and a haircut that on anyone else would look like a poorly-styled wig, but on Audrey Tautou is magic.
Ten years ago, when this film was released, I found myself, as described in my review of The Others a few months back, a mild-mannered university student working at a particularly stellar video store on the East Coast. I was actively geeked-out about the U.S. release of Amélie because (a) it looked a smidge like Moulin Rouge!, which had been released a few months before, and which I’d loved, and (b) It was directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, of whose previous films — save for Alien: Resurrection, which is perhaps best largely skipped over — I was a particular fan. Jeunet collaborated with director Marc Caro on 1991’s Delicatessen, a post apocalyptic Sweeney Todd if you will (but much, much better…and yes, I’m aware that the other Nerdy Musical Theatre Fans will be revoking my — fortunately imaginary — Sondheim badge at any moment), starring the stretchy-faced Dominique Pinon, who also plays Joseph (the jealous lover) in Amélie. The pair also collaborated on 1995’s The City of Lost Children, which is a flawed but truly extraordinary film.
A note about me at the time: a shy, imaginative child, I’d grown into a shy, imaginative adult, perpetually tongue-tied around people I found attractive (despite the steady relationship I’d somehow gotten myself into), and, frankly, some I didn’t. I was not a fan of being the center of attention. I was going through a phase where I collected the lost notes of others, gathering them from the video store shelves or the floor at the end of each workday, wondering about the people who’d written them. These scraps of paper were most frequently to-do reminders and grocery lists (often with curious notations and punctuation: “Macaronis, yes!”, “The oil????”), but were sometimes touchingly personal (in a scratchy old-man-or-old-lady scrawl, “Bethie, PLEASE take your medicine before you go out to do errands. I love you so much”) (I still hope that apparently beloved lady, whoever she was, remembered to take her medicine). And I secretly fantasized about romantic involvement with someone who’d be rather more charmed than bemused by my tendency to turn festive gift giving into an elaborate scavenger hunt. As such, Amélie, a story about introverted people with rich inner lives, people who manage to connect with one another in spite of themselves, people who collect the stories, and the ephemera, of others, people who are privately, well, fun, seemed tailor-made for me.
So, here’s the thing: I’m very fond of this movie. I own a copy of this movie. I also own the really-quite-lovely Japanese promotional poster for this movie, which, for a long time, hung above my bed (an image of a shy woman reading in bed, hanging over a often-shy woman who is often reading in bed…get it, get it?). It might seem easy to dismiss Amélie as a sweet romantic confection, and it is indeed generally considered to be a romantic comedy, though the romance found therein is, let’s face it, fairly peculiar, and the comedy often dark indeed. But it is also rather more than that, and not simply in the “multi-generic soup pot” fashion that Jeunet films tend to be (consider, for example, his later adaptation of French novel A Very Long Engagement, a film which also stars Tautou, and which somehow manages to smoothly combine cinematic genres of war, horror, romance, melodrama, mystery, and whatever genre encourages Jodie Foster to play — quite convincingly, mind you — at being a French actress). Many people love Amélie, certainly, but, in my experience, many people who love “traditional” romantic comedies do actively dislike Amélie. When we began to rent it out at the video store, many customers were not exactly fans — the negative comments I received upon return ranged from “Um, really not what I expected” to “It was weird, and I didn’t like it.” My own mother, who never met a Sandra Bullock movie she didn’t love, was visibly disenchanted throughout and didn’t even care to finish watching.
In many ways, Amélie confounds our expectations of what a romantic comedy should be. It is clearly set in a fantasy world, largely narrated in voiceover, the narrative aurally encircled by the utterly charming accordion-and-piano Yann Tiersen soundtrack, the entire film toned in a cozy-warm amber color which suggests nostalgia and timelessness, whilst playing nicely against the predominant visual themes of textured red and green. The setting is spatially improbable, we’ve only to consider the background of one of the opening shots, in which the flawlessly lit domes of the Sacre Couer frame themselves perfectly within a window. And the narrative makes regular use of magical realism — the pictures above Amélie’s bed discuss her mood as the pig lamp sympathizes, and after disappointing encounters with her love interest, the viewer is given a glimpse of Amélie’s beating heart through her transparent body, and later an instant of her body melting into water and splashing to the floor. This is not, as we are repeatedly shown, reality. And yet, it is also not romantic fantasy in the way that we, as consumers of American movies, have come to expect. After all, Amélie is a remarkably unsentimental film, matter-of-fact in dealing with the unfortunate things that happen to people. Consider, for example, the treatment of the accident that kills the protagonist’s mother — quick, played for (dark) laughs, and occurring within the first few minutes of the film. Or the final admission that not all relationships end well — though Amélie herself seems to “end up” in a successful romance of sorts (though not without effort), her attempt to match up the jealous lover who frequents the brasserie with the zigzag-haired hypochondriac who sells Gauloises ends poorly (if perhaps comically), with each character ultimately reverting to previous, unhappily obsessive, behaviors, and generally driving one another to distraction. Amélie may choose to help people, but she doesn’t moralize; her behavior is no treacly command to “pay it forward” or some such nonsense (and, indeed, her unrepentant “gaslighting” of the bullying neighborhood grocer might even be considered cruel). She may be kindhearted, but it is chance which determines her good deeds — in a Rube Goldberg-like narrative moment, she overhears a television report about the death of “Lady Di,” drops the heavy cap of a bottle, which rolls into a loose tile, thereby displacing the tile and uncovering the edge of the childhood-treasure-filled tin belonging to a long-ago occupant of Amélie’s apartment. A bored/curious Amélie decides to return the tin, and, if that ends well and feels good, she will continue to help others. If not, she tells us, she’ll forget all about it.
Further, Amélie confounds our expectations of how a romantic movie set in Paris should look. There are no scenes of strolling along the Seine, flirtatiously browsing through the book stalls. There are no warmly lit nighttime kisses in front of the Pont Neuf. No lingering coffees whilst holding hands at a sidewalk café with unnaturally clean sidewalks (particularly for Paris). The Eiffel Tower is — gasp — entirely absent from this film. Instead, we are granted the day-to-day operations of a brasserie, sex scenes that are largely unromantic (and perhaps, one might argue, not even erotic), numerous “missed connections,” and a seduction scene that involves a carnival worker dressed in a skeleton suit caressing the face of our heroine whilst moaning softly. This is, after all, a French movie, not an American idealization of the “inherently romantic” Parisian lifestyle.
That is not to say that, at heart, Amélie is not a feel-good movie. It is. But it is a certain sort of feel-good movie; not one that makes an example of someone extraordinary, but one that targets the emotions of those who have themselves felt like underdogs, like misfits (which, let’s face it, is most people, at one point or another). It is a story for those who sometimes (or all the time) struggle to connect with others or to step outside of their interpersonal boxes, for those who are lonely (Amélie herself), breakable (her elderly neighbor, known as “the glass man”), bullied (her love interest, Nino, as well as Lucien, the grocer’s assistant), mourning (her “cat-lady” neighbor, who cannot move beyond her lost love until Amélie sends her fake, long-lost love letters “from” this man), for those who survive things, as we all do. And the narrative treats these characters with interest, rather than pity. They, we are told, are the compelling ones. The few characters who are framed as “normal” or “happy” (think of the other waitress, who is apparently content and cheerful) are also framed as dull, and are largely dismissed from the narrative.
More than that, Amélie is, in some fundamental way (and, as someone who studies the development of the novel and literary character, this might be what I find most intriguing about this film) a narrative about narrative, a story about stories. Apart from structurally foregrounding the story-ish aspects of the film (the narrator, the method of introducing each character, etc.), and possessing (and sometimes repeatedly rotating through) many of the ingredients of a good story, the narrative of Amélie encompasses dozens of stories, and possible stories, that aren’t actually featured within this film. We are introduced to character upon character, many of whom, following a dramatic intro (“This person, who likes these things, at this time, is doing this thing”), we will never again see. “Look,” the narrator seems to be telling us, “this story could also be about this person…but it isn’t.” Consider the scenes, early in the movie, in which Amélie attempts to locate the previous tenant in order to return his box of treasures. The first person who possesses this person’s name is an attractive young man with a foyer filled with glossy plants. We notice a flicker of interest cross his face as he gazes at the pixie-ish Amélie, and we wonder for a moment if this will be a love connection. It will not. We never see him again. The next person who possesses the name of the previous tenant turns out to be a stylish middle-aged lady with marcelled hair, who is wearing a well-tailored men’s suit (for the lit nerds amongst you, this is exactly how I always pictured Djuna Barnes), and who seductively refers to Amélie as “kitten.” Ah, could this be the direction of the narrative? Nope. We never see her again, either. But we get the sense that these were moments in which another story just might have begun.
Consider also, if you will, Amélie’s eventual love interest, the charmingly shy Nino Quincampoix (a Dickens-worthy name if ever I’ve heard one — that is, if Charles Dickens had liked French people). Nino spends his time collecting snatches of the stories of others: the discarded photo booth images that capture Amélie’s interest, but also, we are told, photographs of footprints in cement, tape recordings of unusual laughs, and so forth. And, aside from his romance with the protagonist of this film, Nino is himself a story, or perhaps a collection of stories, simultaneously employed as a sex shop worker, a carnie who works in the haunted house, and a seasonal Santa (seriously, who wouldn’t want to date this guy?).
The interest in these stories-within-stories, or potential stories-within-stories, is also evident within Amélie’s relationship with her brittle-boned neighbor, “the glass man,” who obsessively paints and re-paints copies of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party because he cannot quite master the image of the girl with the wineglass. This, we are told, is because he has not yet figured out her “story.” That is, until he befriends Amélie, and these two characters use the painted figure of the girl as a stand-in for Amélie herself, as a way to discuss her loneliness and difficulty connecting with others, art as a way to explore life. Everyone, apparently, has a story, even a figure in a painting, but sometimes these stories, it appears, overlap and reflect one another, connecting an artistic representation to a world beyond the painting to which it belongs, and, ultimately, it is suggested, a fictional character to a world beyond the story, or the film, to which it belongs.
The bottom line, ten years later? Amélie holds up. It is still visually striking, still delightful, still fresh and appealing and charming and resonant. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t also speak briefly of cultural relevance, for this film has been hugely influential in non-cinematic spheres. For better or for worse, it made the bohemian district of Montmartre popular in a way that it hadn’t quite been before, inspiring hugely popular (and some might say gauche) “official Amélie tours” of the neighborhood. It assisted in (if not launched) the career of painter Michael Sowa, whose whimsical/surreal images of quirky animals appear throughout the film. It encouraged the thrift store aesthetic, as well as the trend for photo booth pictures (remember that?), and, one might suggest, the hipster-fever for lomographic cameras. But, rather more directly, this movie is the reason you can still, ten years later, buy twelve different products featuring garden gnomes in pointy hats when you go to Urban Outfitters. And, of course, the gnome in this film was the direct inspiration for Travelocity’s “roaming gnome” advertising campaign, as well as the slightly-less-direct inspiration for the trend, several years back, of taking inanimate objects on vacation with you and photographing them in front of landmarks (come on, I know at least some of you did this, I’ve seen the pictures).
Random Thoughts and Such:
Oh, great opening credits. Jeunet’s opening credits are always crazy-charming, I’d forgotten that.
Visually, this is rather like being trapped inside an Instamatic, all light-leak-y and warm and slightly fish-eye-distorted. Would that actual life were like this.
Why is this kid’s neighbor such a jerkface? Seriously? Because she got in his way, he told her she caused people to die. Not okay, dude, not okay.
The girl who plays the young Amélie, all soft chin and mournful eyes, reminds me a little of Sally Draper. Does this mean I’m watching too much Mad Men?
Is French-tastic a word? French-tastic should be a word.
Wait, how have I not yet mentioned Audrey Hepburn in a review of a movie starring Audrey Tautou. Audrey Hepburn. There you go.
“Times are hard for dreamers.” Preach.
I’m very interested in this notion that habits and preferences are actually what create characters. And, by extension, that these are the things that actually matter about us (Virginia Woolf would likely have a real problem with this, but this movie makes an interesting case for it).
Mathieu Kassovitz is dreamy, and actually, himself a really good director (see 1995’s La Haine/Hate). Where has he been lately?
I don’t think I’d ever before noticed that Amélie’s skipping stones are collected from places that are significant to her, at moments that feel important to her, thus imbuing them with extra meaning.
Remember when Audrey Tautou was supposed to be the next big crossover star? The Da Vinci Code? (which I always misremember as involving Julie Delpy, who was the Audrey Tautou of the 90s). What happened there? How did Marion Cotillard end up with Tautou’s international career?
This is a visually stunning film. It lost the art direction Oscar to Moulin Rouge!, but, in a year sans that overwhelming spectacle, would have easily taken the prize.
Talking of visuals, the scene of Amélie at the copy machine is totally an Edward Hopper painting.
“With a prompter in each cellar window whispering comebacks, shy people would have the last laugh.”
Man, you do not want to get on Amélie’s bad side. She will mess you up.
I hadn’t realized how very much Pushing Daisies borrows from this film.
Apparently French people love word games. I base this assumption on this movie and my reluctant knowledge of Derrida. This is likely unsound reasoning.
Hmm…this movie really doesn’t include many people who aren’t white.
For a kissing scene that isn’t really a kissing scene, that’s really a pretty lovely kissing scene.
Oh, shoot, I meant to write something about the “failed writer” character. Hmm. Pretend I did that, okay?
If this movie were to be given an American re-make, it would star a googly-eyed Zooey Deschanel in a vintage shirtwaist. She’d be adorably clumsy, would collect thrifted kitten figurines, and would romance a hipster who possessed a self-consciously quirky postcard fetish. I would watch it and feel crabby.