Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet (France, Germany). Year of Release: 2001
Amélie Poulain has led a solitary childhood. The only time that her doctor father came close to hugging her was during her annual medical examination. This approximation of affection made her heart beat so strongly that he was convinced that she had a dangerous condition. She was kept away from school and home schooled by her mother. Her only friend was a suicidal goldfish, and even this was despatched by her parents when it jumped out its bowl once too often.
Amélie lost a parent when a tourist from Quebec jumped off the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral. Amélie’s mother was standing directly underneath. This depth of detail appears a lot in Amélie. Each character is introduced by a hidden narrator who tells us a number of facts about them, most particularly what they like and what they don’t like. These facts are almost exclusively inconsequential and don’t provide us with any truly meaningful information.
Amélie’s life changes significantly on the day that Lady Di dies. Hearing the news, she is distracted and knocks the top off a bottle. This leads her to find a tin box full of childhood possessions from decades ago. She painstakingly tracks down the name of the person who used to live in her flat way back when, then follows up on everyone with that name. When she finally finds the right man, she reunites him with his old possession without ever meeting him – she’s much too shy for that.
Amélie has found a mission in life, which is either improving the lives of others, or meddling where she doesn’t belong, depending on how you see it. Her father does not know what to do in retirement and can’t realise his desire to travel. Amélie arranges for a flight courier to take photos of her dad’s gnomes in exotic locations and send them to him. Her concierge has never got over the death of her husband and reads his old letters, so Amélie fabricates an old undiscovered letter.
At work – a café in Montmartre – a customer keeps pestering his ex, who works behind the bar. Meanwhile, the woman at the cigarette counter is unhappily single. Still hiding in the background, Amélie brings the two together. She is not just a force for bringing happiness, though. She sneaks into the house of the grocer who is unkind to his assistant, and switches his door handles, replaces his toothpaste with foot powder and replaces his slippers with some a few sizes smaller.
The one life she doesn’t sort out is her own. She has had sex once and wasn’t impressed. Then she meets Nino, who works in a seedy porn shop, spending his spare time retrieving discarded photos from photo booths and patching them up. Amélie is too self-conscious to approach Nino, so she sets up an elaborate stratagem of phone calls and chalked arrows to lead him to her café. Even then, when he recognises her from a Zorro-like photo, she is too shy to allow him to approach her.
I hadn’t seen Amélie in twenty years, and was worried that it would turn out to be much worse than I’d remembered. And yes, there are the picture postcard touristy shots of Montmartre and the Gare de L’Est, the twee lack of substance, and above all there are the dozens of films which came after. The term Manic Pixie Dream Girl was coined to describe characters in Garden State (2004) and Elizabethtown (2005), but a few years earlier, Amélie contains many of these tropes.
All this is more or less true, but it didn’t ruin the film for me. For a start, it’s worth remembering why many of us were so looking forward to Amélie. In the 1990s, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro had directed two phenomenal arthouse films – Delicatessen and the City of Lost Children. These didn’t get a huge audience but transfixed a small audience. They also got Jeunet his first Hollywood gig, directing Alien 3. This had its moments but much of Jeunet’s previous quirkiness was removed.
So, we were looking forward to Amélie, and it didn’t disappoint. Like the films Jeunet made with Caro (and his later film Mic-Macs), it depicted people you don’t see in Hollywood films – not just poor, but odd people. This was a film about shy outsiders. And this is not “shy” in the sense of a Hugh Grant character who stutters in a posh voice, but still has charm. Amélie – and Nino, played by Mathieu Kassovitz, fresh from directing the much more gritty La Haine – are socially awkward.
Also, the film is really funny. Much of this comes from the attention to detail, which I concede is very much a subjective thing. We are given way too much inconsequential information about the characters. This is very amusing to people who like that sort of thing. As I happens, I’m one of them, but I can see how to some it could get very irritating, very quickly. The detail also makes the background characters much more well-rounded people to whom we can properly relate.
Yes, Amélie is over-whimsical. No, it doesn’t tell us anything of importance. I’m almost certain that some people like it for entirely the wrong reason, which can seen by the Amélie-based tourist tours of Montmartre. A special place in hell is reserved for these people. This does not stop it from being an enjoyable, amusing, touching film. I’m not one for love stories, but if they’ve got to exist, let’s have one where the lovebirds are barely able to talk to each other, let alone kiss.