The French love to talk. This much has been obvious since the days of the French New Wave, when Godard and Truffaut unleashed their critically-honed skills of
narrative and style on an audience mired in post-World War II morality tales of convention and exact definitions of what is and what isn’t. The dialogue of a typical
French film is an amalgam of ambiguity and introspection, all wrapped up in the ideals of long stares and cigarette smoke.
AMÉLIE is something different, though. There’s lots of talk, yes, and plenty of introspection, too. Jeunet directs with a slightly off-kilter gaze at human nature, and
finds that what motivates altruism isn’t always an unselfish mindset. But what sets AMÉLIE apart from other French films (and I have to admit here, my experience
with French cinema is adequate at best, so I could just be talking through my hat) is the sheer enjoyment with which it analyzes its characters’ various
idiosyncrasies. In the first few minutes (after an amazing opening credits sequence that establishes the film’s style of quick-cut editing married to a fixation on the
ordinary), we get a narrator who tells us the exact likes and dislikes of various characters through a mix of deadpan dramatization and caffeinated camerawork.
Amélie is a dark-haired, pale-skinned little girl in these first few minutes. The story of her whole tragic childhood is told during this time. Then we cut to Amélie as
an adult (Tautou), a dark-haired, pale-skinned young woman walking out of her father’s garden and into the world. The story from here on is simple, but illustrates
the idea that routine is a by-product of chance.
We see Amélie in her apartment, doing those regular things that people do. On the television, there is news coverage of the death of Princess Diana. Shocked by
this news, Amélie drops an object that rolls and hits the wall, dislodging a stone there. Looking behind the stone, she finds a dusty old tin box. When she opens it,
she discovers it full of toys and photographs that are at least forty years old. The nostalgia that radiates from these objects prompts Amélie to find the owner of the
tin and return it to him.
When she finally does find the owner, she discovers that philanthropy is addictive. It fills up a part of her that has been void for some time. And so she sets out on
various tasks to better the lives of the people around her. Along the way, she comes across Nino (Kassovitz), a young man drawn to collecting discarded
headshots from local picture booths. Amélie ends up in possession of his scrapbook of these headshots, and, after tracking him down, leads him on a teasing
search to get it back from her. The scrapbook complements the film’s idea of lost souls. Several of the pictures in it have been pieced back together after having
been ripped up. Each time the book is flipped through, the pictures convey a shattered sensibility that invests itself in a bold surrealism. The concept of twos comes
into play here: identity and retrireview are the balancing forces of the bond between Nino and the strangers whose pictures he collects.
This idea of twos expands to the film’s juxtaposition of sex and innocence. The way AMÉLIE presents them, these two opposites actually draw a link within
human nature. Tautou is a very pixy-ish actress. She has a button nose and a childlike grin that scream innocence. But her Amélie is also a very sexual being, and
her connection with sex is hinted at quite often. At one point, Nino, who works in a porn shop, is talking about Amélie with a co-worker as they stick price tags on
the shop’s dildo stock. The narrator tells us that some nights Amélie likes to stand outside and imagine the number of people having orgasms at that very second.
But that childlike aspect of her never strays far away, as in one sex scene in which she giggles confidentially to the audience while an anonymous man very solemnly
goes about his business on top of her. In fact, any time Amélie speaks to us, the audience, there’s a sly, seductive undertone beneath her eyes and smile. There is
no fourth wall through much of the film, and characters (usually Amélie) address the audience at random at several instances. It’s one of the ways that the film
asserts its reality as opposed to ours, and it’s very effective here.
But that’s not the height of AMÉLIE’S flirtation with alternate reality. Throughout the film, very strange but amazing things happen, incidentally, and are never
acknowledged for being strange. A statue comes to life and shows Nino the way to his lost bag. Amélie’s beating heart is visible (E.T.-style) at one point. Later,
embarrassed and frustrated, Amélie literally melts into a pool of water. These events emphasize the film’s fantasy elements, and progress the visual style to a higher
meaning of symbolism. The whole film is bathed in a yellow palette that highlights the themes of destiny, imagination, and, hovering over everything, the effects of
love. The look of AMÉLIE is the look of magic, and, most importantly, shameless idealism. And, from this, a film of true value and concentration emerges.