Amélie (2001)
(aka Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, Amélie of Monmartre)

D: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
S: Audrey Tatou, Mathieu Kassovitz

Visual and aural spectacle from director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Alien Resurrection) which seems to have provoked joy and hostility in almost equal measure. This is unsurprising given how easily the film lends itself to contradictory reading. On the surface, it is a relentlessly optimistic view of the world seen through the eyes of a girl who has chosen to spread goodness. Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tatou) is a troubled child who, in adulthood, faces a choice. Following the death of Princess Diana in Paris, Amélie discovers an old box of mementos in her apartment. She lets fate decide if she will respond to the tragedy with optimism or postmodern detachment. She will base her behaviour on the old man's reaction to rediscovering the fragment of his past. His tears of joy (themselves a paradox) trigger her quest to make the world a better place. There is something more than just faintly psychotic about this behaviour and most of what follows is, on one level, the story of a twisted mind which has decided to do good for reasons as arbitrary as those which motivate some people to do evil. One thinks of Luke Reinhardt's The Dice Man and wonders if the narrative might just as easily have become Hannibal Goes to Paris if the whims of the character had taken it that way. Be that as it may, Amélie becomes a giddily affirmational interpretation of contemporary French society, an almost hysterically romantic journey through a quasi-surreal space vividly realised through stunning cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel, a delightful musical score by Yann Tiersen, quickfire editing by Hervé Schneid and precise direction by Jeunet.

The film is a startling representation of controlled chaos, an ebullient evocation of the madness of happiness which is almost as frighteningly intense in its own way as anything the director has done before in worlds which were dark on the surface (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children). It is ironic that many viewers responded to Jeunet's reversal of convention with hostility, as if more comfortable with a world in which the grime and horror on the veneer of the film was easier to bear because the optimism was secret and subtextual. Such people fail to see that beneath the cheerful exterior of Améilie lies the beating heart of dementia. It is a film of paradox, a homage to the excesses of joy and love which while not subversive by any means is certainly aware that such emotions are in their own way as uncontrollable and potentially destructive as negative ones.

Audrey Tatou's performance is central to creating awareness of the contradictions at its centre. Her bleach-white face, impish grin, and impossibly wide eyes represent an iconic postcard coquettishness symbolising all that is twee about French culture. Yet one can as easily read a glint of dark mischief and barely concealed insanity in her eyes, and see her behaviour from an altogether different angle given the information we are presented with at the outset. The early scenes are surprisingly disturbing, with young Amélie learning to experience the world through rage and hostility, fixating upon sensation and pleasure to escape the horrors of her family life. Then, as the joyless adult Amélie walks around the streets of Paris, we see a cold, detached woman. Her white face is almost an impenetrable mask of Elizabeth-like affectation. We even see her almost burst into a rage in her dealing with a grumpy vegetable salesman. After her decision to turn her behaviour and her perception to good, Amélie's actions are still potentially dangerous. Her humiliation of the vegetable man, her forcing a customer in the café in which she works to fixate his stalker's attentions on another of her colleagues, and her own obsession with wandering lunatic Mathieu Kassovitz are all things which are not quite as harmless as they seem if you actually look more closely at them. Romance there may be to her quest, but one gets the sense that bedding down with Amélie could as easily result in an ice pick in the back of the neck as a night of fantastical enchantment. Think Betty Blue on Ecstasy.

One of the film's sub-plots which achieves an almost symbolic status is Kassovitz' quest to uncover the mystery of a man who seems to appear on discarded photo-booth print rolls throughout the city. He collects these photographs, and others like them, reconstructing a world of enigmatic, anonymous faces which he guards like a treasure and which Amélie, by chance, comes into possession of and uses to blackmail him into a relationship with her. This quest to construct meaning out of meaninglessness is something of a keynote in decoding the text and its resolution an hilariously literal and prosaic fact which brings it all into perspective.

This is a film about perspective and perception and the ultimate twist is that in spite of the potential dementia of most of the characters' behaviours, Amélie does succeed in bringing happiness to their lives with almost Travis Bickle-like irony. It is perhaps a happiness which barely masks the screaming demons of disconnection and postmodernist isolation, but this is no more than anyone could expect under the circumstances. Like the viewers who choose to see only vacuous euphoria in the film, the film itself is a statement of the fact that life is what you make it, and it is vacuous only insofar as the viewer chooses to see it that way. Amélie is ultimately as critical of its own surface as American Beauty, and it certainly has greater conviction in implicating the viewer in the process of self-delusion.

It is arguable that the scale of the film is too grand for such a basic assertion, but there is no denying the skill with which it has been put together. Jeunet and his team have made one of the most vivid, colourful, and energetic French films of the past ten years. Though for some this is an affront to the high culture to which European film aspires, it is far from purely Hollywood in its values. It is a film of intriguing paradoxes and contradictions, of schizms and fissures in the subconscious which gives insight into mania with an ironic sense of ecstasy which belies its awareness of what people are like in the world inside their heads. It is also a truly cinematic vision of its paradoxes, requiring a reading of both word and image, the explicit and the implicit which demands as much concentration as the most leaden of chamber-pieces. It is as vivid and distinct a film as any which the director has created before, and well worthy of attention on the scale of that lavished upon the others.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.

Note: The Region 2 DVD comes in two editions (for no particularly good reason, as they're much the same price), the 'special edition' has a couple of extra features. You can also get hold of a Delicatessen/Amélie double disc set which features only one or two extras on the latter. Apparantely, a more definitive Region 1 edition is expected.