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Le Fabuleux Destin d’AmÉlie Poulain

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

STAFF writer

Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant

Starring Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz, Dominique Pinon, Isabelle Nanty,Clotilde Mollet, Michel Robin

I’m just about fed up with whatever Hollywood is calling movies these days. If you combine all of the imagination and creativity that went into all studio movies this year (Moulin Rouge excepted, being a studio-bankrolled but still a strictly auterist vision), you will have less than what can be seen in any minute of Amelie.

Not an entirely fair comparison, perhaps, given that Jeunet is one of the world’s few true visionaries, a director whose authorship can be seen in just about any frame of any of his movies. Jeunet worked in the genres of satirical dystopia (Delicatessen) and postmodern fairytale (The City of Lost Children) with co-director Marc Caro (ignoring the failed studio experiment that was Alien: Resurrection), and the distinct feature of both of these movies, the feature that applies to Amelie as well, is the fact that in each of them Jeunet creates the entire world from scratch, ground up, singularly stylish and utterly captivating, the world that is just as much of a character in the movie as any human being.

The main character in Amelie is not as much the titular young woman (an astonishing Audrey Tautou, looking at the same time regally beautiful and comically goofy, with huge dark eyes, seemingly channeling Giulietta Masina) as the city of Paris, magically lit and transformed through the ample use of digital special effects. This is the magical neverland (if only anything in the Harry Potter movie were half as magical!), the city that doesn’t exist anywhere but in Jeunet’s imagination, the place that the audience can visit for two transporting hours.

The story would, at first glance, resemble countless romantic comedies and inspirational weepies made this side of the pond: a lonely spirit helps others, many times almost meets her soulmate, and watches the ripples of her good deeds move away from her and rebound back. Another good metaphor for Amelie’s insanely elaborate kind (and not so kind) deeds that the film employs is the works of Rube Goldberg, stacking action against action and setting them off like so many falling dominoes.

However, it is not quite so simple. While the world of Amelie is truly magical, the people who inhabit it are perfectly normal (be prepared to recognize yourself, over and over, in any of Amelie’s lonely souls), and there is always sadness at the edges of bright romantic comedy that Amelie ultimately is. Even the reason why Amelie herself is an anonymous savior is neither lighthearted nor whimsical; Jeunet makes it clear early on how shy and insecure she is, and how desperate her need is for the human contact she can’t quite initiate.

And with all this, Amelie is still very much a Jeunet film, endlessly inventive, sharply edited, and full of visual surprises in every sequence. A couple of things that could be improved include a next door painter (suffering from the same disease as Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Unbreakable) whose function is largely to speak aloud the subtext, and the rather distressing knowledge of what happens to the characters immediately after the film ends (the original French title, the exact time when the film is set, and the final sequence all hint at that). The best metaphor in the movie is the one that posits Amelie herself as a director, bemusedly watching old movies, setting up exciting parts for other people to play, and then watching the action from the sidelines, unable to participate in it directly. This sadness, contrasted with the wild exuberance of the rest of the film, is what gives Amelie its emotional heft: the knowledge both of magic and its transience.