“I like to look for things no one else catches.”
The Associate Board of Chicago International Film Festival presented a special screening of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, a sumptuous, romantic fantasy of a film that looks as good as it feels. I’ve seen it many times. It’s unrealistic, maybe even a bit silly; yet, it always leaves me smiling. I couldn’t pass up the chance to see it again.
Young Amélie Poulain (Flora Guiet) has a lonely childhood: her odd parents are overreactive, overprotective, and emotionally distant, preferring to rearrange the contents of their toolbox and purse than pay much attention to her. It’s so bad that her heart races when her father, Raphaël (Rufus), a physican, touches her during her annual checkup—a narrator (André Dussollier) explains that all she wants is a hug.
Her father misdiagnoses Amélie with a heart condition. As a result, she’s kept inside from the world and homeschooled by her mother, Amandine (Lorella Cravotta), a rather hysterical woman with a nervous tic in her eye. Amélie retreats into her imagination to deal with it all. Her home environment is so stifling, it makes her pet goldfish, Blubber, jump out of its bowl in multiple suicide attempts. A separate suicide at Notre-Dame, this one successful, changes Amélie’s life, leaving her father to raise her alone without any siblings, which her mother apparently wanted for her. C’est la vie.
Fast forward to 1997: grown up Amélie (Audrey Tautou) is a stylish but shy waitress at a café in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris—artsy Montmartre. While home alone (as usual) in her flat one evening—August 31, 1997—a TV news report of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed’s fatal car accident jolts Amélie, causing a chain reaction that leads her directly to a rusty box of a boy’s trinkets from the 1950s hidden in her bathroom wall. She discerns the identity of the family who lived in her flat back then and devises an elaborate scheme to reunite the boy, now an older man (Maurice Bénichot), with his “treasures” while staying completely anonymous and out of view. It works, bringing happiness to him and in the process to Amélie.
Thrilled with her accomplishment, she decides that her life’s work will be making others happy—in her own amusingly roundabout, always off to the side way. Amélie, you see, prefers to be invisible. She describes what she sees to a blind man (Jean Darie), kidnaps her father’s garden gnome to inspire him to travel, mails a bunch of fake love letters to her landlord (Yolande Moreau) whose husband abandoned her decades ago, and fixes up a hypochondriac coworker (Isabelle Nanty) with a volatile café patron (Dominique Pinon) who just got dumped.
Amélie’s covert approach goes swimmingly for others, but not so much for her own happiness—something she discovers once she encounters Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz), a handsome and quirky stranger who works at a porn shop and collects discarded photos from a photo booth at Gare de l’Est. Amélie can’t bring herself to show herself to Nino, let alone speak to him through a door. Can her neighbor, “the Glass Man” (Serge Merlin), talk some sense into her?
Everything about Amélie dazzles. Just like earlier films Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Amélie is a treat, showcasing Jeunet’s distinct buoyantly surreal visual and narrative style. He’s more sophisticated here, though. He throws in offbeat narrative sidebars that tell about his characters. With wide shots, unexpected angles, a pallet of vividly dark colors, and a mix of elements from different decades, he concocts an idealized version of Paris that highlights all that makes it romantic and dreamy. It works well with Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography, which has a cool sepiatone air to it. My favorite shot is the one of Amélie literally dissolving into a puddle of water.
Tatou is wonderfully mischievous, emulating both Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Tinkerbell. You can’t help but fall for her as she turns the mundane into magnifique. Kassovitz, who comes off as a weirdo at first, capably metamorphoses Nino into a go-getter who turns out to be a great match for Amélie. Plus, he’s easy on the eyes.
(Public Chicago) A
Chicago International Film Festival