This week Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s massive box office success Amélie is re released, ten years on from when it first captured audiences. It won best film at the European Film awards, four César Awards (including Best Film and Best Director), two BAFTA Awards (including Best Original Screenplay), and was nominated for five Academy Awards.
Since, it has become the archetypal artsy French film for modern audiences. Avid art-house cinema fans may feel its huge commercial appeal nulls such artistic status somewhat. Perhaps it is both. So, what is it about this French art-house (or just plain commercial, whichever) film that so many have adored? What is it about it that has driven countless students to want Amelie’s weird, quirky hair cut and round Bambi eyes staring at them from their bedroom walls?
You all probably know the story of Amélie by now, but let us recap anyway. Amélie (Audrey Tautou) is an innocent, shy waitress who lives a sheltered life in Paris. She decides to change the world one step at a time, and distract from her loneliness, by doing weird and wonderful things for those around her. She becomes engrossed in little bizarre projects that succeed due to the dedication to detail she puts into them.
Then there’s the love part. She falls for Nico Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz, director of La Haine) a handsome stranger who works in a sex shop and collects abandoned strips from photo booths in his spare time. She arranges eccentric and carefully planned, dramatic stunts to display her affections, all the while being too shy to reveal her identity until the penultimate, romantic conclusion.
The film is a wonderfully enchanting work of magic realism. Its uniqueness is in the remarkable attention to detail that Jeunet excels in. At one point Amelie is sat in the cinema, and whispers directly to the camera that she likes to ‘notice the details that nobody else sees’. This is evidently true for the filmmaker too, and we are given a part in it. Amélie’s parents are introduced through their likes and dislikes, as other characters are throughout the film. It’s an unconventional way to paint them but is surprisingly insightful. They are carefully crafted with interesting and unique quirks, and it is the specifics that create individuality. Amélie’s father dislikes clingy swimming trunks but likes peeling wallpaper. Her mother dislikes touching the hands of others, but loves cleaning out her handbag. Amélie loves to crack crème brûlée with a spoon.
The film is a rich sensory experience. The contrasting colours are vivid, as is the feel of the sack of grains that Amélie likes to plunge her hand into, and the pruned fingers that her mother dislikes when in the bath. In one lovely scene Amélie helps a blind man cross the road whilst energetically chattering away specific observations from their surroundings.The film is delightfully surreal and not at all concerned with plausibility. It doesn’t try to do more than tinker on the edges of realism and it does so in an absurd, comic way. In the film’s opening there is a tramp that cheerily and politely refuses money to Amélie because he doesn’t work on Sundays, a suicidal goldfish that jumps out of its bowl, and a cat that likes to listen to children’s stories being told.
Despite being set in 1997, the Paris is not painted as modern day, but as one from fifty years ago. The quaint accordion music playing throughout is nostalgic and dream like. It’s a dream like, picture perfect creation comparable to the new Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris, where the French capital is drawn as a 1920’s ideal. Amélie’s omniscient narrator describes the characters, their feelings and the plot as it unfolds. It’s like being read a fairy tale, but one that includes a sex shop.
Peter Bradshaw from the Guardian wrote in 2001 that watching Amélie is like being ‘frogmarched into Maxim’s in Paris and forced to eat up the entire sweet trolley in 60 seconds’. I’ll try to not be bias here. It is admittedly saccharine, and not everybody has a sweet tooth. Amélie is an adorably sweet bohemian waif. Her do-good actions are sweet. The outcome is sweet. Yet this is the precise intention, and the film mischievously indulges in its sugary content.
Those who love Amélie do so because it does what films can often do best; provide escapism. But of course, here it is escapism of the surreal, poetic sort rather than the mindless type. It’s endearing in how it transports to a world that’s recognizably real yet equally magical. It fills with warmth. It does this whilst being sharply humoured and strikingly imaginative. If only a device exists,like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to erase the memory of a film in order to experience it fresh all over again. If you personally prefer a savoury treat, well then fair enough, let us agree to disagree.
Amélie is released on Blu-Ray 17 October