Published November 16, 2001
Amélie by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose French title is Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, is a kind of updating of those 19th century celebrations of the earthy and authentic bohemian life lived by the denizens of Montmartre that used to be so popular in France and elsewhere. It suggests a touch of Les Enfants du Paradis, a soupçon of Jules et Jim, only with more than a hint of knowing postmodern irony. It would be quite insufferable, I think, without the presence of the luminous Audrey Tautou in the title role. It is far too sweet and, at the same time, too gimmicky — an odd combination that only her charm and beauty is able to hold in any kind of equilibrium. So successful has it been in France, however, that it is said to be the highest-grossing French film, in France, in history.
Jeunet’s earlier films, Delicatessen and City of Lost Children and the repulsive Alien Resurrection are exercises in the postmodern Baroque and would never have suggested anything so light and frothy as this — though the po mo element is still as emphatically present, if better kept in check, as in the earlier films. Unlike them, however, it is well worth watching for a general audience, even though it tries to do too much quite to succeed as a film. In this it is like its heroine. For although the beautiful Amélie is infinitely lovable, Jeunet cannot resist making her put the whole world to rights. The film thus consists of one episode after another of Amélie’s benign manipulations of other people’s lives that, if performed by anyone else, would seem the work of a dreadful busybody.
It all begins with the death of Princess Diana on August 30, 1997. Shocked at the report of it, Amélie drops a bottle top, dislodging a tile behind which she finds a box of boyish treasures from the 1950s. “Only the opener of Tutenkamen’s tomb would know how she felt,” the knowing voiceover narration solemnly informs us. With some difficulty she finds the original owner of the treasures, Bretodeau (Maurice Bénichou), restores them to him anonymously and thereby changes his life. From here on her own is changed too as, seeing the effect her action has on him, she sets out to make similar changes in the lives of others.
Thus she sabotages the apartment of Collignon (Urbain Cancelier) the greengrocer across the street as a punishment for treating his mentally retarded employee, Lucien (Jamel Debbouze), so contemptuously — and contemptibly. She fabricates a lost love letter from her dead husband to the unhappily abandoned concierge of her building, Madame Wallace (Yolande Moreau) to make her think (wrongly) that her husband loved her to the end. She forces her widowed father (Rufus) out of the rut of old age by sending his garden gnome around the world with a friend who is a flight attendant (and who becomes known as Snow White to her colleagues as a result) and having photographs sent back to him. She matches up the hypochondriacal Georgette (Isabelle Nanty) the attendant of the sweet and cigarette kiosk of the Parisian café where she works as a waitress with Joseph (Dominique Pinon) the pathologically jealous ex-boyfriend of her friend and waitressing colleague, Gina — even though the jealousy reasserts itself and spoils the relationship.
Finally, she befriends Dufayel (Serge Merlin), a neighbor known as the glass man because he suffers from brittle bone syndrome, who passes the time painting and re-painting Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. She enables him to paint something new. Perhaps because she has done so many good deeds, Dufayel in turn emboldens her to break out of her immense shyness (an odd quality in one who meddles so aggressively if good-heartedly) and approach Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz), the young man she has got her eye on who works in a sex shop and is even more eccentric than she.
It is all too much. She should not have been allowed to have put the world to rights as well as finding love for herself. The film would have been better and stronger if Jeunet had stuck to one or the other, or if he had at least been more restrained in the exuberance with which he persuades us of Amélie’s goodness. But there are many good jokes and other delights even beside the chief delight, which is Mlle. Tautou.