- 2001 1 Jan
The season of short box-office lines is almost over. On Friday, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone opens, and some are predicting it will break Titanic's box-office record. To avoid the round-the-block, round-the-clock lines, you might want to sneak out to your neighborhood arthouse theater, where a couple of new releases are gaining a good deal of applause. One of them even claims it might "change your life."
In fact, Ameliejust might follow Life is Beautiful and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to be this year's foreign-film success story. The French film, directed by the visually inventive Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children) could garner a Best Actress nomination for Audrey Tautou; her performance in the lead role swings between outrageous and subtle, shy and hyperactive, hushed and hilarious.
"She'll change your life," boasts the movie poster. Amelie tells the story of an introverted, creative, impulsive young girl who discovers the joy of performing anonymous good deeds for lonely, despondent, troubled souls. (If this sounds like the premise to Pay It Forward or other emotionally manipulative tearjerkers, trust me—this is something entirely different. Amelie has more in common with fantasies, fairy tales, and fables.)
Magic seems to follow Amelie as though it's part of daily life. When Amelie's heart breaks, she literally melts into a splash and a puddle of colors. When she's asleep, the paintings of barnyard animals on her bedroom walls talk to each other. And when she falls suddenly and drastically in love, her palpitating heart shines visibly right through her jacket.
Mike Hertenstein (Cornerstone) raves, "Jeunet grabs viewers by the arm and reels off a wondrous catalog of simple pleasures: the cumulative effect is to reveal the wonder of each individual. Jeunet has an advantage over many people, in both his gift for seeing, and also in noticing this odd detail: the otherness we crave must ultimately, despite the risk, find expression in human relationship."
"Amelie is one of those people who exist only in the movies," says J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth). "She's completely innocent and naive, yet resourceful enough to change the lives of everyone around her." But for Parks, Amelie's good deeds grew a bit tiresome. "It's like eating cotton candy. A little bit goes a long way."
Amelie's relentless energy and optimism might be a turn off to some. But she's the latest in a long tradition of fantasy heroes. There's a bit of Alice in Wonderland in her adventuresome spirit, Mary Poppins in her persistent goodness, and Robin Hood in her charitable meddling. There is also something Christlike about the way she focuses a ferocious attention on seeking and finding each individual's specific virtues and specific sadness. Amelie encourages us to get to know our neighbors and try to meet their most secret needs. She shows us how a little act of love can sometimes penetrate the hardest of hearts.
Some religious press critics were troubled by the fleeting glimpses of sexual activity. John Adair (Preview) believes these moments "keep Amelie from being recommendable."
There are other flaws at the heart of this fable. The USCC says the film's "gorgeous visuals … manage to gloss over any moral considerations." While she knows better than to address complicated problems with Forrest Gump-ish platitudes, Amelie's good intentions compel her to morally questionable endeavors. In her hurry to give hope and happiness to a heartbroken neighbor, she concocts a fanciful lie. Well-intentioned lies might leave others smiling, but they provide false hope and put the believers at risk of humiliation and disillusionment. Amelie also settles for solutions of a sentimental and nostalgic nature; basing one's happiness on mementos from childhood is not the path to a deep and lasting joy. Worst of all, Amelie's meddling nature leads her to set up mild accidents for neighborhood bullies rather than confronting them appropriately.
But still, I am inspired by Amelie's ability to care for the oddballs of society, even if they never discover the identity of their "guardian angel." When Amelie does the right thing, she's a beautiful picture of grace.
Jeunet's film is more satisfying and less indulgent than his previous epic The City of Lost Children, in which the style overwhelmed the substance. My wife and I found Amelie to be a romantic, laugh-out-loud date movie, and we left the theatre imagining just what kind of surprises we might be capable of giving to unsuspecting souls.
Some mainstream critics are sour on the film's persistent sweetness, but most are swooning. Brian Miller (Seattle Weekly) concludes, "If Amélie is about anything, it's about the overlooked, invisible bonds between us distracted, harried urban dwellers."
The Chicago Sun-Times's Roger Ebert explains: "It is so hard to make a nimble, charming comedy. So hard to get the tone right and find actors who embody charm instead of impersonating it. It takes so much confidence to dance on the tightrope of whimsy. Amelie takes those chances, and gets away with them."from Film Forum, 01/17/02
Among those readers who responded to my meaningful movie question, Wayne Proctor highlights Jean-Pierre Jeunet's French comedy Amelie: "Selfless, benevolent acts without celebrity are a rare breed in this day and age, and I found that to be the beautiful heart of the film."
Likewise, Jessica Poundstone is enamored of Amelie: "Plunging your hand into a sack of dried beans. Making shadow puppets on your bedroom wall. Sticking raspberries on your fingers and popping them off with your teeth, one by one. These are but a few of the small pleasures spotlighted in Amelie. (Why they didn't keep the original French title of the film, The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulainfor its U.S. release is beyond me.) I adored this film's willingness to go over the top with everything—from the luscious greens, golds, reds and blues that saturate every frame to the title character, with her enormous eyes, porcelain skin and impish smile; to the storyline: girl on a mission to execute outrageous, anonymous good deeds. The film is a wild celebration of moviemaking, life, and love. It has set me looking for small ways to bring poetry and magic back into my everyday life."