Friday, September 12, 2014

Grace's Pick: Amélie (2001)


Hello my fellow cinephillic jerkazoids. My name is Grace, and you don’t know who I am. That’s okay, no need to fret. Just close your eyes and I promise everything will be fine. Ignore the sound of me sharpening knives. It’s not important. I can see we’re going to be very good friends.

I’m Brighid’s younger sister and I got called up from the Minor Leagues of my own self-aggrandizing blog to serve as pinch-hitter in this fine filmographic venture. I’m filling in for Evan, who would have been lead for this post and as such I was also tasked with picking the movie. Brighid has only herself to blame for what follows. We’re taking a pretty sharp left turn this time around and I’m sure it’ll be gag inducing for some but I had very short notice for this so everyone can deal with it. I’ve chosen the French romantic comedy Amélie (Les Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain) directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, he of Alien: Resurrection infamy. I’ve never personally seen that movie but I do know many who grimace at its mere mention, and after combing through Jeunet’s filmography it becomes obvious that he’s more of a self-stylized auteur and that the Alien debacle is, if anything, an aberration from his typical theme. Amélie is pretty atypical of a French film, as well, since it doesn’t end in existential crisis and greyscale contemplation of futility.

Original French tagline: “One day we’ll all be dead.”

Amélie is about a young French girl metamorphosing from wallflower to a 3-dimensional person in the early nineties in the village of Monmartre, near Paris. Right from the start we the viewers can guess what sort of story we’re in for, with the saturated colors, upbeat accordion music, and cheeky narration with absurdly specific details about nothing of significance (“A fly landed on the street in this neighborhood! Two wine glasses get blown around on a table and don’t break! An old man’s best friend is dead! Some lady gets pregnant! Guess who her baby will be!”). The overall effect is very stylistic, very “romantic” and very, very French.

Amélie grows up before our eyes in brief snatches of childhood that demonstrate her precocious whimsy and which take a turn for the bleak when a suicide jumper off a cathedral tower manages to land directly on Amélie’s mother, killing her instantly. Amélie grows up isolated from children her own age due to a misdiagnosed heart problem and left only to the distant, fish-like affections of her father until she moves out at the age of sixteen. Amélie slowly gathers around her a collection of neighborhood acquaintances, all possessed with some sort of personality quirk/defect, while Amélie proves herself to be as emotionally stunted as her own father, giving up on romantic relationships at the tender (and completely asinine) age of 23 after only a couple half-hearted attempts. Then Princess Diana dies and Amélie’s whole perspective shifts upon discovering a boy’s hidden treasure trove of toys long forgotten. After anonymously reuniting the now-middle-aged man with his lost memories, she goes on a crusade of helping people and bettering their lives, many times without them knowing it was her. Amélie’s journey of redeeming others gives her the courage to redeem herself and she finds the bravery to reach out for the man she falls in love with and find a bit of her own happiness. They have sex, the world is good, cue accordion and roll credits. Everyone take a cigarette break and meet back here for Act II.

So, was it cliché for you, too?

We good? Everyone back? Okay, this movie is clearly saccharine wish fulfillment without appearing to offer anything new or ground-breaking to counteract our imminent diabetic coma. I do not object, however I do feel that this is an oversimplification of what this movie does bring to the table. For starters it’s actually funny, which is more than I can say for a good 70% of romantic comedies I’ve been forced to see in the last four years. The control of the director over his vision is palpable from minute one and maintains itself until minute 121 of the total runtime. His thematic vision of people’s tendency to cling obsessively to the proverbial “good ole days,” to the exclusion of real relationships and new experiences in life may not be unheard of, but it is impressive how every single character fits so seamlessly into this mechanism without repeating themselves. Whether it’s the old man in Amélie’s apartment whose bones are brittle as glass and despite being a breathtaking artist, insists on only ever painting the same Renoir over and over; or the landlady who keeps her taxidermied dog and a portrait of her dead husband who had also cheated on her; or the crazy guy who stalks his waitress ex-girlfriend at the restaurant she and Amélie work at; or even Amélie’s own father and his ever-evolving shrine to her dead mother. She is surrounded by people who don’t know how to move on, and who don’t want to learn. The old Glass Man keeps a camera hooked up to his TV, but the only thing he films is the bank clock across the street so he never has to bother resetting a clock. Completely isolated and cut off from the rest of the world, his only past-times are reliving a single painting from the 1800’s and literally watching the time go by.

And go by it does. We hear of a “new star” being discovered and that neuroscientists have determined there are “more links in [the human] brain than atoms in the universe,” and that rich people will have their ashes shot out into space. The world is moving on and all these poor proles are getting left behind in the dust, forgotten. And people like the Glass Man or the stalker ex-boyfriend might be happy enough to bury themselves to the goings-on of their own insignificant microcosms, but what this movie really strikes home with is that there is one thing all of these blinkered individuals will inevitably have to acknowledge: death. Yes, this is a romantic comedy that actually courts the Grim Reaper.

What, did you think I was kidding about the French tagline?

While Lady Di’s death is not actually impactful to anyone but Amélie in the movie, it serves as a cultural touchstone for the universal idea of the impermanence of life. Being famous won’t save you, being important won’t save you, even being young won’t save you. Everyone dies and there’s no knowing when, so what the hell are you waiting for? I suppose what I most appreciated about this film was that in amidst the relentless optimism and standard romance-movie tropes (including the “the protagonist thinks the man of her dreams loves another! Drama! Doubt! Despair!” shtick) there’s this lingering specter of mortality hanging over all the characters. Amélie, having lost her mother at such a young age, feels that resonance with Lady Di’s death in a more poignant vein. She is capable of looking beyond her tiny little world to see the reality of inescapable mortality and decides to do something to help the people stuck wallowing in their own slop heap of unrealized dreams. Of course it wouldn’t be a “proper” movie if the heroine didn’t have some personal issue of her own that she’s incapable of overcoming without getting a boot up the ass, but hey, no one ever accused this film of being a masterpiece. 

It’s possible I’m reading too much into what is essentially a (well-constructed) romcom, but given I mostly hate romcoms, the fact that I don’t hate this one seems telling. While certainly not my favorite movie of all time, it is enjoyable and aesthetically delightful, with enough genuine humor and suggestions of meatier melancholy to cut that taste of sugary sentiment with some much needed coffee-dark bitterness. And to that I say Touché*.

*Translation: “Meh.”


Amélie is the kind of film that causes my friends to get pissed at me. An innocuous question like “What did you think of Amélie?” will bubble up at a gathering of mixed company, and I’ll be forced to come out of the closet as an unrepentant asshole, hell-bent on harshing everyone’s mellow. Jean-Pierre Jeunet has managed to distill, alloy, and then weaponize everything about Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, and Robert Zemeckis that makes me want to spill blood, and perpetuates it for over two fucking hours. Just to keep the hyperbole up, I’ll go so far as to say that this film is the ultimate expression of the West’s love affair with its own gilded and  feel-good navel-gazing bullshit that permeated everything  in the final days of the 20th century, before the anchors of Manhattan’s skyline fell and changed reality. Now that my irritation has been sufficiently globalized, let’s dig in!

While this film is basically a diluted Roald Dahl pastiche for adults, I will admit that it is very well made. It knows exactly what it wants to do, and pulls its distinctive vision off at every single turn.  In that respect, this film might qualify as a masterpiece (it’s certainly better than Jeunet’s previous effort, Alien: Resurrection). I would also be remiss if I didn’t admit that this film was genuinely funny at times.

Amélie, our allegedly adorable protagonist, is an introverted cypher with hipsterian bits of flair pinned onto her otherwise featureless character. She has no firm opinions, opting instead to bulge her eyes at things she likes or fall silent when people don’t understand her intermittent gibberish. She has an active imagination, is not overly materialistic, and is disinterested enough in the pleasures of sex for her American audience to feel safe while projecting themselves onto her stolid half-smile. She likes noticing things other people miss in movies! Her hobbies include thrusting her hands into basketfuls of dry beans and enacting petty acts of revenge in the spirit of Zorro! Princess Di’s death totally upset her. Fourteen years after her movie takes place, I bet she’s probably reading Paper magazine and listening to the Pizza Underground.*

Amélie are happy!

The film’s structure is fairly loose, resembling a collection of fables anchored together by a unifying protagonist and the unrelenting deployment of dramatic irony. Each segment of the film represents a sort of obstacle course for our heroine, with a defined goal at the end. Supporting characters are often little more than prettily painted cardboard, literally defined by some off-hand quirk of personality. These human set pieces sprout up like weeds to augment the vaulting dome of whimsy the film so laboriously attempts to insist upon, but true to their nature, have nothing to offer when required to exist beyond the sight of Amélie’s frivolously glazed stare.

I’ll be honest: the only enjoyment I was really able to wring out of this film was imagining a Futurama parody of it called Zoidéberge. On the plus side, this is a film that knows exactly what it wants to be, exactly how to do it, and hits every technical note with graceful precision. That drags this film’s overall grade up high enough to be considered passing. C

*Things you probably haven’t heard of

Amélie are sad!


Amélie spent at least ten years on my “to watch” list (also known as cinematic purgatory). Many movies have been added to that list, and on occasion, many have been removed from that list, studied and carefully imbibed. But never Amélie. She’s ever the bridesmaid, never the bride. Thanks to our guest columnist, this French flick has seen its number finally punched, forcing me to dive into a cross-cultural phenomenon that’s been recommended to me by countless friends – high school classmates, college buds, and random strangers I’ve shared brews with at the bar.

Considering how long I’ve dodged this movie, I’ll be upfront and blunt. I didn’t like it. Interlaced within the beauty of this film, lingering in those vibrant hues, most often of greens and yellows, I found a dark secret this movie’s harbored, an arch-villain lying in wait who ran afoul of my sensibilities.

And who is this nefarious rogue? Who is this diabolical knave who ruined the entire movie for me? “It’s your narrator, Amélie. Something has got to be done about your narrator.”*

For a film as beautifully shot as Amélie, for a film as bright and imaginative, as quirky and charismatic as this one, it didn’t need a chatterbox trying to ensnare the reins on this piece of cinematic art. Every time that authorial douche-bag spoke, I cringed. He ruined jokes. He corralled the pocket universe director Jean-Pierre Jeunet was creating, stifling exploration of the scenery and the backdrop.  Freedom of interpretation was locked away and imprisoned, so that the narrator could paint the picture he wanted to gloss over this unique portrait. What could have been a triumph for cinema had the shackles of literary narration bound to it, sinking the art of the medium into the abyss.

In all honesty, I’ll admit that I found parts of this movie funny, too. Every gag I laughed at, I noticed, did not have an authorial voice overrunning the scene. In those few, brief moments, it was just me and Amélie – two against the world. And it was cute. Magical. Enchanting.

And then that guy in the audio track started yapping. What an asshole.

*Secret Back to the Future II reference

 Mais il est mon narrateur !

1 comment:

  1. Dammit, this may be a double-post, so apologies if this appears twice with slightly different wording (a faux pas I consider as embarrassing as publicly singing aloud to a song to which you don't know the actual words).

    Grace, lovely analysis of Amelie. I saw this movie only once about 12 or 13 years ago, and honestly I didn't know what the big deal was. I just thought it was really whimsical and way too long. However, you've revealed a thematic dimension to it that I had no idea existed, and I'd be lying if I said you haven't piqued my interest in seeing it again. Goddam you.

    Brighid and Scott, fine writing as usual. I didn't expect either of you to like this film but I did enjoy the ways you both approached it. Scott, was that a secret Planet Terror reference I saw in your review?