Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Director Report Card: Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2001)

4. Amelie
Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain

“Alien: Resurrection” didn't destroy Jean-Pierre Jeunet's career. However, it's clear that the big Hollywood production left a bad taste in his mouth. Jeunet would return to France and make his most critically acclaimed and popular film yet. The original French title translates as “The Fabulous Life of Amelie Poulain” but stateside we just call it “Amelie.” The film would be nominated for five Academy Awards and become the favorite movie of that one girl everyone knew in college. It briefly made Audrey Tautou an international superstar and easily one of the most beloved French actresses. While of a different stripe then Jenuet's previous films, many would be happy to claim it as his masterpiece. 

As a lonely child, Amelie Poulain would retreat into an imaginative fantasy world. As she grew into a shy, withdrawn adult, Amelie maintained for penchant for whimsy. A chance encounter has Amelie making a sudden decision. She decides to improve the lives of those around her. Which includes befriending the ill man across the street, urging her father to leave the house more, and hooking up two loners at the coffee shop she works at. Amelie is so focused on adding some magic to the lives of those around her that she forgets to improve her own life. Soon, love comes calling and Amelie must grow if she wants to attain happiness.

“Amelie” begins with a narrator describing a series of seemingly unrelated events, happening simultaneously across Paris on the same day. In a direct quote from Jeunet's earlier short film, “Things I Like, Things I Don't Like,” the narrator relates the personal likes and dislikes of the characters. This lends two different, complimenting aspects to “Amelie.” The omniscient narrator grants a novelistic feeling to the film, adding insight to the fantasy world “Amelie” inhabits. By the same accord, it zeroes in on what a small story this is. Often, and to its benefit, “Amelie” feels like a series of events in the lives of ordinary people.

“Amelie' has been accused by some as being too whimsical, too quirky for its own good. This is not an unfair criticism. Without one major attribute, the film's capriciousness might have been overbearing. That attribute is Audrey Tautou. With beaming saucer eyes, a black bob of perky hair, rosy cheeks, and an entirely enchanting smile, Tautou immediately charms the audience. Tautou imbues every gesture and movement with an effervescent energy, showing pure glee and delight in countless scenes. The script refers to the character as “just pretty,” which is surely ironic as Tautou is utterly gorgeous. Tautou is so delightful, so instantly lovable, that she would have to take extra caution not be typecast in similarly daydreaming, flighty parts.

Premise wise, there doesn't seem to be much that connects “Amelie” with Jeunet's earlier, surreal science-fiction films. The always sunny, perfectly clean version of Paris seen in this film is a million miles away from “Alien: Resurrection,” that's for sure. Yet one element in particular emerges out of “Amelie” that connects it with Jeunet's earlier films. Amelie has a lonely childhood, raised by a nervous mother and a father that never hugged her. This resulted in colorful flights of fancy: Performing check-ups on a fuzzy green creature, clouds forming into teddies or bunnies. Out of the sweetness of childhood emerges an honest sadness about being alone.

As quirky as “Amelie” appears, it's also a film bordered by death, even in its cutest moments. One of the earliest scenes concerns a man marking a recently deceased friend's name out of his phone book. In a blackly comic sequence, Amelie's mother is killed by another person attempting to take their own lives. The death of Princess Diana floats throughout the entire movie, characters reacting to the beloved celebrity's sudden passing in different ways. Amelie's first act of kindness is reuniting a man with a box of beloved, childhood mementos. This prompts him to reconnect with his children, before he “ends up in his own box.” “Amelie” is a film that ravels in the beauty of life. This is all the more effective since it admires how short life truly is.

Amelie's random acts of kindness shift between the strictly adorable to more mischievous. She's at her most wicked when laying tiny pranks for a cruel grocer, all in a effort to get him to treat a belittled co-worker better. The meticulous quality of these scenes are especially amusing, as we see the man react to every trap she lays for him. She delivers video tapes of unusual events to the brittle-boned painter. My favorite of Amelie's scheme is what she plans for her own father. She kidnaps dad's lawn gnome – part of a shrine devoted to her late mother – and mails it around the world. Dad then receives photos of the gnome posing in front of various landmarks. The film saves as much room for Dad's reaction as the act itself, mining good-natured humor from the prank.

As a Jeunet film, “Amelie' is obviously a visual feast. The production design is flawless, while the photography is warm, inviting, and just slightly dream-like. Some of my favorite moments in “Amelie” is when Jeunet peppers this story with imaginative flights of fancy. After walking a blind man down a street, and describing everything she's sees, a cone of light emerges around the man. After setting up the first pranks against the grocer, Amelie imagines herself as Zorro, defending the defenseless. When flushed with feeling, we see her heart beat in her chest. When crestfallen, we see her dissolve into a puddle of water. Jeunet's direction becomes frenzied when capturing Amelie's nervous perception of the world. When indulging her flights of fancies – how many couples are having orgasms right now? - his editing is equally fast paced.

The film reaches its most dizzying heights when focused on the love story. Amelie meets Nino when she spots him fishing torn up pictures out of photo booths. Through fate, she comes upon his lost book collecting these photos. Before giving the book back, she sends Nino on a wild scavenger hunt. Again, in any other film, this probably would've been too precious. Jeunet tempers the cuteness with Nino's job in a sleazy sex shop. More importantly, he acknowledges that the games Amelie plays are another way to guard her secret, shy heart. When the two come together, it's truly earned, a joyous meeting of two like-minded dreamers.

“Amelie” also pulls off another impressive act. Most romantic/comedies have that tedious injection of drama during the end of the second act. Usually, a character screws up and has to win their lover back with some big, grand gesture. In this film, we are presented with the one example of that troupe that actually makes sense. Instead of a contrived event keeping Amelie and Nino apart, the only thing separating the two lovers' are their own anxieties, doubts, fears, and neurosis. She nearly meets the man before hesitating, which cost her. It's only with the urging of a mentor that Amelie is finally willing to venture outside her own world and greet the love she deserves.

“Amelie” isn't an ensemble to the degree that “Delicatessen” was but still features a colorful supporting cast. Jeunet regular Rufus plays Amelie's father, an eccentric and sorrowful man trapped as much in his own world as his daughter is. Dominique Pinon – naturally, the director sneaked him in somewhere – appears as Joseph. A regular at Amelie's coffee shop, Joseph is bitterly spying on an ex-girlfriend. Amelie engineers a romance between Joseph and Georgette, a hypochondriac co-worker played with perfect humor by Isabelle Nanty. When the two finally get together, the result is thunderous, to say the least. I also like Jamel Debbouze as Lucien, the bullied stock boy with an interest in stage magic, and Serge Merlin as the painter next door, a wise man who mostly speaks in riddles.

Nearly as famous as the film's visual style is its soundtrack. Jeunet would score the film with pre-existing music from French pianist Yann Tiersen. “Amelie's” success and Tiersen's music go hand in hand. The accordion driven main theme establishes the Parisian setting, the film's impish sense of humor, and a jaunty sense of energy. Yet this can't compare to a piece of music used throughout the film called “L'apres-midi.” A devastatingly powerful piano piece, the music hints at the melancholy and power hiding within “Amelie,” summoning up an incredible wave of emotion during several key scenes.

A decade and a half after its original release, “Amelie” remains Jean-Pierre Jeunet's most critically acclaimed film. There was even a stage musical, so you know the movie must be popular. It's an enchanting experience, that runs over two hours but floats by like the most pleasant of dreams. “Amelie” is a movie that makes me happy, that fills me with the most genuine and heart-lifting joy imaginable. It is a touching, funny, beautiful experience that never fails to raise my spirits. [Grade: A]

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