Amèlie (Le Fabuleaux Destin d'Amèlie Poulain)
A Film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
The new film from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of the well- received French imports Delicatessen and City of Lost Children (as well as the forgettable Hollywood effort Alien Resurrection), is a light-hearted, optimistic comedy that effectively incorporates the most charming magical-realist elements since Like Water For Chocolate. Jeunet propounds the view that, in the words of E.M. Forster, life "...is a Romantic adventure, and its essence is Romantic beauty," and he does it winningly, humorously, without coyness or false sentimentality.
The story centers around Amèlie, a young waitress at a cafe in Montmartre. And centers is the appropriate word - for the narrative starts in the middle and swirls and spirals in and out of flash-backs and asides, to create a narrative - like most of Jeunet's French films - that is mosaic and has a spontaneous feel to it. Events occur unexpectedly.
Like a conjuror, Jeunet distracts us from conventional linearity of story-telling. The juxtaposition of several different but overlapping stories allows him to present the elements of the plot in a way that gives it freshness and life. He engages us with one character or another, with one plot line, and then suddenly returns us to another, already in progress. The sense is very much that of real life, where we reveal our stories in episodes, catching each other up each time we meet.
Of course, taking such liberties with the established ideas of "story-structure" is a feature of contemporary cinema. This trend began with the "flashback" technique that allowed events that occurred earlier to be referenced to enhance the impact and complexity of linear narratives in films such as Casablanca and Citizen Kane.
In the noir classic, D.O.A. the technique was taken to a new level, where almost all of story is revealed through a series of flashbacks related by the protagonist. Over the decades, it has developed into the sophisticated and multi-layered temporal dislocations (that run forward and sideways as well as backwards) of such recent films as Pulp Fiction, Memento and Run, Lola, Run.
In Jeunet and his co-screenwriter Guillaume Laurant's narrative, these dislocations take center-stage in a way that uses them effectively to convey this sense of surprise, of the actual unfolding of events that so enlivens this film. Jeunet constantly shrinks and expands time by using a variety of stop-motion, pixilation and slow motion techniques - as well as by pulling back from the events to offer narrated asides and even to allow characters to comment on what has just transpired.
This use of technique to enhance the emotional impact of a film is very dangerous territory. All too often, overpowering technical skill is seen as a way to compensate for an under-developed or poorly conceived story. But Jeunet manages to keep his balance here. The engaging story and its diverse interesting and recognizable characters are served by the many effects - the effects expand personalities and situations, and serve to make them more accessible.
The extensive use of symbolic imagery, as well as the technological manipulations, offers a visceral connection to the characters' actual experience that bypasses (and short-circuits) our ordinary rational/analytic approach to story-telling. With the hyperbolic, poetic bravado of the "teller of tall tales," Jeunet inveigles us to "suspend disbelief" in the actual events, in order to connect us more deeply with the basic human experiences the narrative events represent in our own lives.
The story evolves around Amèlie's "Fabulous Destiny". The use of the word "Fabulous" is another underlining of the fact that what we are viewing is a fable, a "Romantic Adventure" whose meaning is revealed not in the mundane recounting of experience, but in penetrating to the mytho-poetic significance that experience holds for those who participate in it.
Amèlie is a shy, repressed young woman who comes from a physically cold, emotionally deprived background. Her father is an analytical, distant Army doctor; her mother, who dies when Amèlie is still a teenager, is a demanding, rationalist schoolteacher. Both have distinct obsessive tendencies. Because of a misunderstanding about Amèlie's health, she, their only child, is educated at home, further isolated in the loving but un-yielding world they have created for themselves.
Like the "holy fool" of many fables and fairy tales, the sheltered, innocent Amèlie leaves home to "seek her fortune" in the world. After a period of acclimatization, clues begin to appear to her and when she takes one of them seriously and decides to act on it, the events that are the focus of the film - how Amèlie overcomes her self-imposed restraint and finds love and connection in the world - take place.
The events are pedestrian enough - the finding of a tin box of toys hidden and forgotten by a previous tenant in a hole in the baseboard of her apartment is the first - but it is Amèlie's decision to interpret them as magical visitations fraught with "romantic" significance and possibility, and to act on them with imagination and compassion that changes her life.
This theme, in clumsier hands, could easily have become a travesty. One has only to think of several recent Robin Willams vehicles or any number of heavy-handed Hollywood attempts at "fantasy," to realize what a daunting task Jeunet set for himself. But he handles the theme so delicately and playfully - letting his characters live it out, rather than preaching to us about it - that the end result is something so fragile and inviting, that it seems irresistible that we should become engaged.
The writing is remarkable. Jeunet as director and creator of the visual images sets up a relationship with the script that swings from harmony to counterpoint and back again, with a sense of rhythm that keeps the pace of the film lively and varied. One of my few complaints about the film was the use of quick cross-cutting and montage in a way that has become a little too familiar in recent years from television advertising and music videos - but the one or two very brief slips are rare exceptions, which repeated viewing may show to be entirely reasonable given the film's objectives and vocabulary.
The dialogue is "literary" rather than naturalistic, but it works because it is internally consistent, and Jeunet and Laurant are creating a parallel reality here, like those of J.R.R. Tolkein or Kenneth Grahame, that don't need to be literally believable in order to be emotionally authentic. Again, this is a very difficult feat to bring off, and it is much to the screenwriters' credit that they succeed.
Jeunet's emphasis on the visual elements of the film is strongly supported by fine camera-work. The compositions, colors, movements and angles are clearly part of a very carefully worked out visual vocabulary that Jeunet has been developing throughout his career. The set design and costuming effortlessly transgress the line between ordinary eccentricity and magical surrealism, providing a constant subtext that accents mythic nature of the story.
Jeunet is substantially assisted by a very talented cast. Audrey Tatou who plays Amèlie, has a pretty, wide-eyed face (which Jeunet consistently emphasizes through the use of wide-angle lenses in close-up). Her ability to do physical comedy, from subtle slapstick to making faces, with a delicacy and playfulness that is never the least bit arch or self-conscious is absolutely essential to the film's success.
Because Jeunet relies as much on image as he does on dialogue, Tatou's expressive pantomime skills and her Chaplinesque ability to be simultaneously both appealing and ridiculous keeps the film from falling into artificiality on the one hand and self-importance on the other. She strikes just the right balance between wistfulness and desire, shyness and daring imagination, to create an entertaining tension and suspense around her character.
Mathieu Kassovitz, the French wunderkind who wrote, directed edited and starred in L'Haine, (Hate), a disturbing and powerful film about racial prejudice in France, appears in a radically different role in this movie. He plays Amèlie's love interest, a young man with some strange vocations and an unusual hobby. His idiosyncratic portrayal is an effective complement to Amèlie's innocent sense of wonder.
The ensemble cast are all effective. Particularly worth noting are the rubber-faced Dominique Pinon and Rufus - two veterans from earlier Jeunet films, as well as Flora Guiet who plays Amèlie as a child. Jeunet has gotten wonderful performances from young actors in earlier films, particularly The Island of Lost Children, and he does so again here, with evocative sequences that provide a wonderfully believable back-story for the adult Amèlie.
At a time when stories that genuinely affirm our own power to heal our lives are few and far between, Jeunet's delightful fable comes as a welcome gift. Amèlie playfully but profoundly asserts the capacity of our own choices - choices for risk taking, for connection, for communication, for relationship - to transform us. The captivating effectiveness with which Jeunet and the rest of film-making ensemble create their magical universe (which is, after all, only a differently-imagined version of our own), provides us with an alternate point of view from which to evaluate our experience, and proposes the existence of an alternate set of tools by which we may change our world.
That's my take on it. What's yours?