Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou), a very timid and extraordinarily charming server at the Two Windmills café in Montmartre, organizes the return of childhood keepsakes to a middle-aged man who had hidden them in her apartment building 40 years previously. She’s been on a lengthy quest for this guy, meeting all kinds of strange Parisians along the way, but she finally locates him in a phone booth and watches as tears stream down his cheeks as this tin full of trinkets triggers a rush of memories.
“Amélie has a strange feeling of absolute harmony,” the narrator adds as she glides happily around the frame. It’s the ideal time. A delicate light, a perfume in the air, and the city’s peaceful hum. She is overtaken with a rush of affection and a desire to assist people.”
Amélie isn’t so much a picture about love as it is about the heroine’s efforts to create it for others — and, eventually, for herself. And, considering how much time she spends torturing the horrible greengrocer (Urbain Cancelier) who abuses his innocent, simple-minded employee, Amélie isn’t exactly a film about altruism (Jamel Debbouze).
It’s essentially a picture about perfection, a dream about how a chaotic universe may be harmonized down to the second via sheer force of will, timing, and deftness of touch. The picture has a mechanical sense about it that contrasts sharply with the spontaneity and surprise of genuine affection.
The metronomic ticking that Jeunet creates here is that “strange feeling of absolute harmony” — gratifying, but not romantic.
Nonetheless, Amélie seems like a significant change in filmmaking approach 20 years later, a logical bookend to Moulin Rouge earlier in the year. The medium was about to enter a period of extraordinary flexibility, in which the world could be bent and tweaked down to the pixel, and constructed to create moments of pure, storyboarded flawlessness.
Although Audrey Tautou’s flawless bob is the finest accomplishment in French hairstyle since Anna Karina’s bangs in Vivre Sa Vie, the film’s frigid order should not be misconstrued with gushing romance.
Amélie also remembers a famous Onion headline from two years earlier: Romantic-Comedy Behavior Arrests Real-Life Man. He pursued a lady for two months, spied on her and tapped her phone, and “tricked her into boarding Caribbean-bound jets,” according to the restraining order against him.
Amélie may have a more delicate touch and a timidity that keeps her on the periphery of her own life, but the film celebrates a peculiarity that’s just on the verge of derangement, as she makes elaborate interventions in people’s lives and teases the man she wants with Rube Goldberg contraptions that don’t pay off until she’s ready.
To some extent, Jeunet’s Paris doesn’t need Amélie to syncopate to a nice beat since he revels in the random, unconnected occurrences surrounding her conception and subsequent birth nine months later. Amélie is an only kid whose only buddy is a “suicidal fish” that jumps out of its bowl.
She grows up to be a meek, self-effacing adult who realizes she can change the fates of others around her without being seen. As a result, she returns the middle-aged man’s childhood mementos.
And she persuades the cafe’s hypochondriac cashier (Isabelle Nanty) to notice the regular (Jeunet favorite Dominique Pinon) who sits opposite from her station every day. She also pays tribute to her father’s goal of seeing the globe by snatching his garden gnome and having a flight attendant send back Polaroids of the gnome at major places.
And she obtains a key to the cruel grocer’s apartment, where she games with his mind by replacing his toothbrush with foot cream and his slippers with a pair that is a few sizes too small.
And the list goes on and on. When Amélie sees Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), an attractive young guy who has established a habit of collecting abandoned photos from beneath photo booth machines, she is compelled to take an interest in creating pleasure for herself.
Their courting is all about gestures and delayed gratification, and it’s all so brilliantly orchestrated that the spectator is never allowed to conceive what a true relationship between them might be like. In that sense, it’s the ultimate romantic comedy, picturing nothing worse than a series of created difficulties preventing two people from living happily ever after.
For many, it’s a beguiling illusion bolstered by the unquestionable brilliance of Jeunet’s filmmaking. The difference is that Jeunet’s prior fantasies with co-director Marc Caro, the black comedy Delicatessen from 1991 and the surrealist science-fiction City of Lost Children from 1995, have a far heavier tone to bring them back to reality.
Without a doubt, Jeunet succeeds in transforming this secluded area of Montmartre, which was previously confined to the residents of an apartment block and a café, into a community of oddballs knit together by spectacular orchestration. The experience is meant to be a continuous magic show, but it’s usually sickly sweet.
Tautou does an excellent job as Amélie in conveying the loneliness and dread at the heart of her character while yet encouraging the viewer to join in on her behind-the-scenes shenanigans. Jeunet, on the other hand, is uninterested in her humanity, much alone the other characters, who are characterized by ridiculous likes and dislikes and strange patterns of behavior, but are also stuck in his vast scheme.
It’s difficult not to feel duped by Jeunet in the same way his elfin heroine meddles like people’s lives. Even if the intention is kind, you’re still being thrown about.