Combining the whimsy of a joyous romantic comedy with the heightened reality of a fairy tale, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie is the rare film that touches the heart while dazzling audiences with its invention and creativity. Set in Montmartre and revolving around the escapades of a sweet woman whose do-gooder instincts transform the lives of the people around her, Amélie embraces a hopeful vision that is a stark departure from Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, the thematically dark and stylistically dreary films that Jeunet made with Marc Caro. Jeunet may engage in his old visual devices of stratling zoom shots and odd close-ups, but the apocalyptic clutter that suffused his old set designs is gone, as is the unrelenting bleakness and pointlessness. In Amélie, he and co-screenwriter Guillaume Laurant have created a charmer that embraces the chance encounters and simple joys that make life wonderful and the odd turns of fate that can transform lives.
In an energetic, fast-paced prologue, we are introduced to Amélie Poulain. Raised by her widowed father, who is cold and distant, she has no playmates and must retreat into her imagination to shape her world, a quality that continues to sustain her as an adult (played by Audrey Tautou) when she is a waitress at a café.
Jeunet employs a narrator who introduces the characters and often includes a brief sketch featuring their likes and dislikes. Amélie, for example, enjoys dipping her hands in sacks of grain and skimming stones off the surface of water – having given up on romance, she “cultivates a taste for small pleasures.” Even looking at the faces of an audience as they watch a movie brings her joy. This last detail reveals a lot about Amélie – she is a watcher, one who observes life more than she participates in it. Her closest contacts seem to be her acquaintances at the café – Suzanne the owner (Claire Maurier); a hypochondriac tobacconist named Georgette (Isabelle Nanty); a waitress named Gina (Clotilde Mollet); Gina’s jealous ex-lover, Joseph (Dominique Pinon); and a struggling writer, Hipolito (Arthus de Penguern).
One night Amélie finds hidden behind one of the tiles in her bathroom an old tin box containing the toys and trinkets of a child from 40 years ago. She decides to seek out the owner of the box, a man named Dominic Bretodeau (Maurice Benichou), who is now middle age. Apprehensive about Bretodeau’s response, she does not face him but comes up with an elaborate scheme. She learns his daily routine and leaves the box in a phone booth that she knows he will pass by. She calls the booth, and he picks up the phone and finds the box waiting for him. This 50-year-old man is overjoyed to see the treasures of childhood before him and yet, saddened to think how one’s life can be reduced to a box of toys, resolves to reestablish contact with the daughter he has not seen in many years and spend time with his grandson.
Stunned and moved by the effect she has had, Amélie decides to dedicate her life to helping others. In one of the film’s most inspired sequences, she grabs a blind man by the arm and takes him for a quick walk while rattling off what she see so that he can have some sense of the bustling world around him. It is a fast-paced whirlwind and an energetic piece of filmmaking that captures the unbridled enthusiasm of the heroine while leaving the audience breathless.
Tautou is a pure joy in the title role, embodying two qualities that are difficult to play simultaneously – a sense of innocence and mischief. Amélie is essentially good-hearted and naïve about the world around her, but she is also a true manipulator with a naughty twinkle in her eye and a sly smile that suggests she is not as simple as she may at first appear. Jeunet even as her occasionally look directly at the camera to draw us in to her schemes, a risky trick that works because it is hard not to be enchanted by her.
One role that she plays is matchmaker. Seeing that Joseph’s jealousy is constantly gnawing away at him and infuriating Gina, Amélie tries to get him together with Georgette, even conspiring to get the pair alone in the same room, where mad, spontaneous lovemaking ensues. Amélie’s schemes for everyone else are just as entertaining and fanciful. In little, devious ways, she makes life miserable for Collignon (Urbain Cancellier), the local grocer, because he publicly humiliates and berates his slow-witted but for good-hearted employee, Lucien (Jamel Debbouze). Amélie goes into Collignon’s apartment and alters the little things he takes for granted, like swapping the toothpaste and foot cream and changing the handles on his doors. She sets his alarm for four o’clock, and he is so tired that Lucien must run the store that day and ends up shining in his new role. Amélie’s father (Rufus) never fulfilled his dream to travel, so she steals his prized garden gnome and sends it around the world with a friend and has her send back pictures of the gnome in the great cities of the world as a way of inspiring her father’s dream. Madeleine (Yolander Moreau), the concierge of Amélie’s apartment building, is still grieving over the husband who was cheating on her when he died years ago in South America. So Amélie cuts pieces together copies of fragments of his old letters, photocopies the composite, browns it with tea, and sends it to Madeleine as a letter that was lost and went undelivered for many years. In this letter, her husband seems to reaffirm his love for her, turns his back on his philandering ways, and looks forward to the day they will be reunited. Thinking that her husband truly loved her, Madeleine can thus move on with her life.
Amélie also develops a friendship with her neighbor, Raymond Dufayel (Serge Merlin), who is known as the Glass Man because his bones are so brittle. He has not left his apartment for 20 years, and everything in his home is padded since the slightest jolt could destroy his frail skeleton. He is the physical counterpart to Amélie, who has developed a psychological barrier to fully engaging with the world. Dufayel passes his time copying Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” making a new copy each year but always struggling with the expression on one of the girl’s faces. She is in the middle of the group and yet somehow detached. What is she thinking? He wonders. The girl becomes a representation of Amélie, and, as they debate the girl’s inner life, she becomes as way for them to talk about Amélie’s own hesitations to become part of her community as she fixes other people’s lives while ignoring her own. Meanwhile, Amélie anonymously drops off videotapes at Dufayel’s door that feature odd little snippets of life – a horse joining a bicycle race, a one-legged man dancing – as a lovely way of expanding the boundaries of his own self-enclosed world.
While she is running around doing good deeds, Amélie is becoming fascinated by a strange young man named Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), whom she sees rooting under photo booths. One day as she is following him, he loses a photo album that Amélie picks up. It contains photos thrown away by people at photo booths all over town. One very serious-looking man pops up many times in the album, and Amélie speculates that he may be dead and taking the pictures so that he will be remembered by the living. Perhaps Nino is the perfect guy for Amélie. After all, he has constructed a family album of sorts through photos of complete strangers, and, like her, seems to be a lonely observer of humanity. He posts lost-and-found signs asking for the return of his book, and she eventually finds him at the funfair, where he works on the Ghost Train ride. She takes the ride, and Nino, in character as a skeleton, gently caresses her neck. What follows is a game of cat and mouse in which Amélie and Nino share some close encounters but never quite connect because Amélie is too shy to follow through on her desires. She leaves a note telling him to meet her at a carousel, where she puts the album in his motor scooter and then calls him at a nearby pay phone to direct him to a certain page of the album, where she asks if he would like to meet her. When he posts sign asking where and when, she responds by leaving pieces of a photo of herself dressed as Zorro (her alter ego in her fantasy life), where he is likely to find them. Sure enough, he pieces the photo together to read her note, which tells him to meet her at the café. He identifies her as the woman in the photo, but, once again too shy to make a connection, she denies it and then has Gina slip a note in Nino’s pocket to arrange yet one more meeting at a photo booth. In a great visual moment that expresses her inner regret and longing, Amélie melts into a big splash of water.
Amélie has discovered that the man in so many of the pictures in the photo album is not a ghost trying to gain some kind of immortality on earth but rather the photo booth repairmen. And yet learning this mundane fact is not a source of disappointment for Amélie. In the marvelous world of this film, a simple discovery carries as much satisfaction as a supernatural explanation would. Amélie jams a photo booth and calls for repair at the time of her proposed meeting with Nino so that he too can be privy to the big secret. It may seem like such a small gift, but since both Amélie and Nino take pleasure in life’s simple discoveries, she knows that he will appreciate finding out the truth. Unfortunately, while Nino comes face-to-face with the repairman, Amélie once again misses her chance to meet Nino. Frustrated by all of the missed meetings, Nino finally gets Amélie’s address from Gina and comes to Amélie’s apartment, but she does not answer the door, yet again sabotaging herself. Then, in a touching yet bittersweet scene, she finds in her apartment a videotape from Dufayel, a video letter in which he implores her not to miss out on love. Spurred on by Dufayel’s plea, she runs to her door and finds Nino has returned, and, in the end, Amélie and Nino are together and apparently in love, racing through the streets together on his motor scooter.
Amélie is an exhilarating trip to a world in which goodness is magically rewarded with true love. And yet the film is still anchored in some sense of reality. Joesph’s incessant jealousy finally destroys his relationship with Georgette, thus implying that Amélie’s little schemes are not cure-alls for everyone, and we never learn id Collignon changes his bullying ways. Lucien, however, does gain a sense of confidence by becoming an art student of sorts under Dufayel’s tutelage. And Amélie’s father finally heads for the airport to fulfill his longings for travel. Wedded to the sweet story are some dazzling stylistic flourishes – and omniscient narrator who places individual moments in the context of the general flow of life, clever fantasy sequences like Amélie imaging her own lavish state funeral on TV, even photos that talk to Nino about Amélie. Jeunet thus imbues his story with a surreal edge as playful as the unforgettable heroine who celebrates the everyday joys of living.
Release Date: 2001
Starring: Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz, Rufus, Yoalnda Moreau, Dominique Pinon, Maurice Benichou, Artus Penguern, Urbain Cancellier, Isabelle Nanty, Claire Maurier, Claude Perron, Clothilde Mollet, Serge Merlin, Jamel Debbouze, Flora Guiet, and Andre Dussollier
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Writers: Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant
Source Citation: Chumo, Peter N, II. "Amélie." Magill’s Cinema Annual 2002. Ed. Christine Tomassini. Detroit: Gale, 2002. 14-17.