Audrey Tautou in Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (2001)

AMÉLIE (Fabuleux destin d’Amelie Poulain, Le)

(director/writer: Jean-Pierre Jeunet; screenwriter: Guillaume Laurant; cinematographer: Bruno Delbonnel; editor: Hervé Schneid; music: Yann Tiersen; cast: Audrey Tautou (Amélie Poulain), Mathieu Kassovitz (Nino Quincampoix), Rufus (Raphael Poulain), Yolande Moreau (Madeleine Wallace, Concierge), Arthus de Penguern (Hipolito), Urbain Cancellier (Collignon, The Grocer), Jamel Debbouze (Lucien), Dominique Pinon (Joseph), Serge Merlin (Dufayel), Flora Guiet (young Amélie), Nantty (Georgette), Claire Maurier (Suzanne), Serge Merlin (Dufayel), Clotilde Mollet (Gina), Maurice Bénichou (Bretodeau, The Box Man), Claude Perron (Eva, The Strip Teaser); Runtime: 120; Miramax Zoë; 2001-France)


“I like my films to be more intellectual and less like French pastry.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A sugary treat that aims to please the masses, which it has done in France. It set box-office records there, and seems ready to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign film in the States. It, supposedly, gives the people what they want, a sweet girl who yearns to be the neighborhood do-gooder while also trying to find romance and overcome her sad upbringing and her loneliness. She finds it in a fairy-tale way with an eccentric young man who is a perfect companion for her, sharing the same compulsive traits. On the romantic prowl, the shy heroine is surrounded by many colorful characters in a sanitized and fictional Paris. How much one likes this whimsical tale depends on one’s tolerance for a Pollyanna tale about making the world a better place. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen/The City of Lost Children) is co-writer with Giulliame Laurant, and gives this fable a uniquely visual flair.

The film opens with a voiceover describing Amélie’s horrible childhood. As a young girl her neurotic school teacher mother died when a suicide leaper landed on her when jumping off the towers of Notre Dame. Her iceberg ex-army doctor father (Rufus) gives her check-ups once a month and detects a heart condition. The fluttery condition we are told is caused only because she hungers for a fatherly touch. Kept home from school to be tutored, she grows up without friends. In this unhealthy environment she retreats from life to escape her fate and becomes a dreamer, a practical joker, and a timid introvert. Amélie is not interested in sex as she prefers cracking créme brulée or skipping stones over the river.

The scene switches to 1997, the year when both Mother Teresa and Princess Di died, and when Amélie’s a 23-year-old waitress in a Parisian café at Montmartre. A thumbnail sketch is painted of those she meets in the neighborhood: the café owner Suzanne, whose failed love left her with a limp; the other waitress Gina, who is being stalked in the café by her jealous ex-boyfriend Joseph; a hypochondriac tobacco seller Georgette, and, the assorted café patrons such as the failed writer Hipolito, the tenants in her building such as the lonely concierge and the frail artist Dufayel; and, the colorful oddballs in the neighborhood such as her mean-spirited grocer and the retarded employee, Lucien, whom the boss verbally abuses.

Amélie dramatically decides that her life will change to one of serving humanity if she finds the owner of a child’s rusty treasure tin box she accidentally found in a secret place in her apartment, which happens to be on the day Princess Di died. The box consists of things he collected while living in that apartment in the 1950s, which are filled with valuable memories and emotions for him — such as photos and toys. After tracking down the 50-year-old, she magically helps a number of other unhappy lost souls she comes into contact with; such as, by faking a love letter a deceased husband sent to the wife he ran away from 40 years ago. She does all these good deeds secretly so as not to be detected.

The perky, wide-eyed heroine who loves looking right into the camera at the viewer when talking, has with relative ease improved things for those around her. The quirky manner which she does it, gives the film its charm and proves to be a rewarding star role. Though, the film’s lighthearted air and childish jokes did not pull me into its whimsical mood.

In the main plot, Amélie’s eyes catch those of a guy whose hobby is collecting discarded ID photos from photo booths at train stations, Nino (French director Mathieu Kassovitz), and she instantly falls in love with this porno store clerk and ghost in an fairground park. But she can’t face him, as she’s overwhelmed by her loneliness and insecurities. So Amélie devices a scheme where Nino is lured into chasing her around a pop-art dreamlike Paris, as she provides Nino with clues to her identity and he tracks her down. It works, as her mystery woman status has him panting with excitement.

Amélie is advised by her reclusive artist neighbor, Dufayel, to stop the games and take the risk and go after love in the open. He says, “It is better to try to meet the one you love than be lonely.” The joke being that Dufayel can’t break free himself of his lonely neurotic behavior and only paints imitations of Renoir paintings.

In order to like this film one must accept that Paris is not meant to be the real City of Light but one that movies create to fit the mood of their films, and in this case the personal vision of the filmmaker. It’s slickly done, inventive, beautifully photographed by Bruno Delbonnel, and fast-paced, but strictly for the feel-good crowd. I like my films to be more intellectual and less like French pastry. I found Amélie to be only superficial and bland.