Thursday 21 July 2011

Amélie (2001)


Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet had been collecting things since 1974. Anything really. Stories, images, memories, impressions, people. He filled notebooks with things that he found interesting or worth remembering. It would seem he never really found any particular endgame in his collecting, at least not a specific enough one to be able to quantify his endeavours. It was, for all intents and purposes, just his hobby. When he eventually became a filmmaker, he would have continued picking up these scraps of life around him, likely dipping into them for ideas or inspiration. However, in 2001, his hobby would give him what is quite possibly his masterpiece. A fantasy about love and joy centred on a young woman named Amélie Poulain.

Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou), an innocent and naïve young waitress living in Paris, decides to help those around her rediscover the joy their lives as a way of making herself happier. However, she does find it difficult to find real joy for herself, until she (sort of) meets a young man named Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz).

The script for Amélie was written by Guillaume Laurant, based on a story by both Laurant and Jeunet. The two had previously worked on The City of Lost Children to pretty decent results, so when Jeunet finally decided to tackle those notebooks filled with the odds and ends of existence that he had amassed over all those years, it was Laurant that he enlisted to help him. The script itself is at once beautifully detailed and also rather scattergun. There is, for the longest time, little in the way of an actual story. It’s really more a collection of characters, stationed in various settings, with Amélie as the one connection that runs through them all. Things happen to them, either by the machinations of Fate or of Amélie herself, but there isn’t really an overall arc for it all. It’s okay, because it’s really more about what this random gaggle of misfits and oddballs get from each other if only they would look up once in a while. There are moments of grand absurdity, and even some glimpses at a rather dark humour, but it’s all taken as part of a widespread fantasy. Given the importance of the characters in the film, they each shine wonderfully. Even if they’ve only been given the slightest tick or affect, it is built on beautifully. There is a point being made about what you can understand about a person from only the briefest glimpses, and the importance of trying. Nino becomes obsessed with a particular man in his photo collection, and longs to understand what his story is. Amélie’s neighbour, Dufayel, paints the same picture (Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party) over and over again, but always has difficulty with the one girl whose face is mostly obscured by a glass. As such, he considers her his greatest challenge. In this world, people who try to understand more about those around them are the ones worth listening to. When there is a story to look at - Amélie’s infatuation with and pursuit of Nino - it’s so incredibly charming that you almost can’t help but go along with it.

Jeunet, a great visualist, creates for the film a vibrant sense of colour and atmosphere. Wanting to ape the look of Brazilian artist Juarez Machado, Jeunet and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel bring an appropriately painterly look to everything. So much so that you could pick almost any random frame from the film and hang it on your wall. Giving the fantastically striking nature of the Paris on show, every scene is composed and rendered in complementary colours, with reds in greens and yellows in blues. This is a world that is so alive and vivacious that it’s almost cartoonish. Some may feel like it’s a bit much, but there is no denying the sheer vitality of what’s on screen.

Yann Tiersen’s music is equally infectious. It’s minimalist, it’s absurd, it’s memorable, it’s unique, it’s versatile, and it’s an unmitigated delight. It never overpowers the picture, but enhances it to a splendid degree. Even as I’ve been sitting here writing this, the music is running through my head.

Performances throughout are solid. No one fails to make an impression. This is partially due to the slightly over-the-top pitch of the film that the actors must live up to, but they do so without any trouble. They all own such a distinctive look, they speak and move in such a unique way that, cartoonish broad strokes or no, these people are alive. However, this is Amélie’s film and Audrey Tautou is its beating heart. Tautou is absolutely adorable, capturing that child-like nature and slight emotional reserve of the character superbly. She always looks like she’s just barely keeping a secret, like she knows that it’s all a film and is trying not to let all the other characters in on the joke, thus keeping it going that little bit longer. It’s this kind of playful nature that rests at the core of Amélie. She’s not embarrassed or troubled by what’s happening… it’s just all part of the game she’s playing with everyone else and she wants it to go on for as long as possible.

What is perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of Amélie is that the film is not really Amélie’s fantasy, but director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s. Here, he has, in some way, created a wonderful relationship for himself, or at least a fictionalised version of himself. Amélie’s love story is, by equal measure, the love story of Nino, played by Mathieu Kassovitz, who is also a filmmaker. Let us consider Nino as the filmic surrogate for Jeunet. The filmmaker connection is obvious, but look closer at Nino. Like Jeunet, Nino keeps a scrapbook of the things that people throw away, in this case the unwanted, torn-up photos from photo booths. If this is true, Amélie can be considered as the story of a pretty young women, full of joy, coming to love and appreciate the filmmaker for all his quirks and oddball habits. It’s not really a vanity project. After all, Amélie is a simple girl, and just as weird as he is. It’s more of an act of mercy to his younger self. Nino’s relationships don’t last long, probably because he’s a bit strange. Jeunet himself might have had relationship woes growing up because he himself was a bit strange. Today, Jeunet is married and a world famous filmmaker, but there does still exist in his memory the image of himself as a somewhat lonely young man, looking for companionship in the world. The reason Amélie exists in such a fantasy world, and in fact seems to be the only one aware that she’s in a film, is because she is there as an agent of Jeunet’s psyche, there to bring hope and happiness to the young man who wants nothing more than to have someone who understands him.

I’ll be honest… the first time I watched Amélie, I wasn’t convinced. I thought it was a little too quirky, too precious, too saccharine, too fantastically naïve to really connect. The fact that it was so lauded with praise only served to baffle me further. This is not the first time this has happened to me with a film. Both Taxi Driver and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford got the same reaction. By film’s end, I could appreciate the technique and understand it all, but I just couldn’t say I felt it. It was only when I realised that I was still thinking about Amélie days after seeing it that it sank in. The same goes for those other two, which I now count amongst my favourite films. The next time I saw Amélie, it was a different story. I got it. I felt it. There are still some things I still don’t quite buy into, but the rest of the film is more than enough to make up for this.

If you haven’t seen Amélie, then I would certainly recommend it. I would perhaps be prepared to give it two shows, if you’re anything like the moderately hard-hearted person I am. However, you may be lucky enough to get it on the first go. Amélie is a truly lovely film, rich in atmosphere, colour and such a sense of (yes, I’m going to say it) joie de vivre. Plus, if it convinces a couple of people to be nicer in the world, then I’d consider that a success.

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