Thursday 21 January 2010

Amélie (2001)

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Stars: Audrey Tautou and Mathieu Kassowitz
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

One thing that surprised me as I worked through this project was just how much French cinema began to slap me between the eyes and say, 'Hey, look at me!' I'd seen Amélie before and fell in love with it on my first viewing, but I'm finding that at least some of the joy that this brings me is present in many French films and many of my favourite films of all time are now French. It shouldn't be surprising. After all, what we know today as movies came to life in France. Sure, there had been fancifully named inventions all over the civilised world such as the zoetrope and the magic lantern and the kinetoscope and such, but each was treated as nothing more than a scientific curiosity, hardly something to display to the masses.

It was the Lumière brothers in Lyons who mixed the science with entertainment by making actual films with the instruments that they had devised. While they made short comedies and so-called realities, filmed enactments of real life situations like a train arriving at a station, their fellow countryman Georges Méliès took things a step further again by using stop motion animation and other innovative tricks to confuse, surprise and shock his audiences. He made films that took us to the moon, turned beautiful women into skeletons or displayed magicians who could remove their heads. And all of this before the turn of the twentieth century. At the other end.

Now when it comes to modern French cinema, you'd be better off talking to my friend Dan who has far more depth than I have, though I've certainly been catching him up over the decade or so since he first showed me this. I knew a few names reasonably well, whether they be actors like Jean Reno or Gerard Depardieu who have made their names known on a wider stage, or filmmakers like Luc Besson or Olivier Assayas who have established their own unique styles. I'd really enjoyed quirky films like Irma Vep, Nikita and Subway, or the Taxi series. It was Dan who introduced me to one of the biggest names in French cinema today, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and for that he has my undying gratitude.

Jeunet is unique. That may sound trite but once you've seen his entire body of work you'll use exactly the same word. From the surrealism of City of Lost Children through the delightful black comedy of Delicatessen to a distinctly Jeunet take on Hollywood action films in Alien Resurrection, he has never failed to do something different. With Amélie he gave us a modern day fairy tale, a glimpse at the magic of childhood that most of us quickly lose. It's an hour and a half that reminds us what pure delight is. I challenge anyone to leave this film with a heavier heart than when it began, but I won't dare you because that never works.

Amélie Poulain is a young lady who is full of life but who has never been able to live it. She sees through the eyes of a child; not that she's backward or naïve, but in that she can still notice things that most adults have forgotten to look at and laugh at them, just like a child. While most people descend into thinking certain ways because that's how they should be thought, Amélie has a blissful delight in thinking about things her own way. It makes her incredibly attractive to us, the viewers, but of course it makes her lonely in life, and as such she doesn't connect with the world very well. When she finally finds someone to care about, she has absolutely no clue how to go about telling him.
We find out her background in a long narrated introduction that is quite unlike the usual sort of thing. For a start it begins with her conception, shot from the sperm's point of view, and then continues throughout her youth, as she finds all sorts of joy in the littlest things, coins and ribbons and strawberries stuck on the ends of her fingers. We find out all sorts of quirky little details like her suicidal goldfish called Blubber and her used Instamatic camera that her neighbour convinces her causes accidents. After a night of panic watching the evening news, she works it out and gets her revenge by messing with his TV antenna while he's watching football, disconnecting him every time someone's about to score.

We're introduced to the characters of the characters through incredibly specific likes and dislikes. Her father Raphaël likes peeling large strips of wallpaper but dislikes wet clingy swimming trunks. Her schoolmistress mother Amandine dislikes having her hands touched by strangers but likes the costumes figure skaters wear on TV. We find out that she spends her life at home, because the only physical contact she gets from her father is when he does a monthly checkup and because this makes her heart race he ends up believing she has a heart condition. Her mother dies at Notre Dame, taking Amélie to pray for a baby brother, but ends up crushed by a tourist from Quebec who commits suicide by leaping off the roof. Her father builds an ornate shrine in the garden for her ashes.

And after being almost submerged inside the lives of the Poulains, we meet the grown up Amélie in the utterly delightful form of Audrey Tautou, who must be at least two thirds pixie. She works as a waitress at the Two Windmills café, which is as full of bizarre characters as anywhere else in this film. It's run by a former bareback artiste called Madame Suzanne, Georgette the tobacconist is a hypochondriac and even the regulars, like Joseph, are obsessives who turn up every day to record notes about the waitress two months after their relationship has ended. And in and amongst this absurdity we're told that while she doesn't know it quite yet, 48 hours later her life will change forever. This sort of strategem pervades this story to its core and each and every example is a delight.

What happens 48 hours later is that Princess Diana dies and our story really begins when, shocked at the news, Amélie drops a glass stopper that bounces into a tile in her bathroom to reveal a tin box, carefully secreted behind it many years before by a previous resident. She takes it upon herself to track him down ​​​and return the box and its knick-knack contents to him. Of course, being Amélie, she does so surreptitiously and so enjoys his rediscovery without ever being seen, suckering him into a phone box that she's left the box inside. The sheer joy in this scene is palpable, right up there with the most joyous moments I've ever seen on film, not just his joy but the joy she finds in his joy from afar, and how she discovers that it changes his life.

So It causes her to embark on a further series of quests designed to anonymously bring happiness to many of those around her, or in one notable exception to mess with the life of someone who deserves it. To recount the fabulous destiny that provides the original French title is to spoil the discovery that awaits you here. I will at least tell you that it covers a whole range of human emotions, as Amélie finds love and purpose and belonging, but overall is a thing of bliss. I laugh more joyfully with this film than any other I have ever seen. Blazing Saddles may have me in stitches every time I see it but Amélie brings different laughter. It's a delight, pure and simple. Watching it will enrich your life and help you to see the world with different eyes, just like those of Amélie. 'Ain't life beautiful?' says Georgette and she could be talking about this film.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet spent over fifteen years collecting the quirky stories that make up this script, retired train ticket punchers who get up at night to punch laurel leaves instead, blind men who play records on the subway or the artist downstairs from Amélie who paints old masters for fun but finds that the characters change their looks while he isn't looking. He's Raymond Dufayel, known as the glass man because his bones are so fragile that he pads things in his apartment to avoid dangerous accidents. Most importantly there's Nino Quincampoix who collects ID photos, even reconstructing those that the subjects have torn to shreds, and keeps them in a scrapbook. Acquiring this scrapbook by accident, Amélie works out that there's one man whose picture keeps appearing, taken twelve times on different dates and at different stations but nonetheless always discarded.

It's these quirky little details that make the film so full of wonder. Watching it years apart I find that while some details do fade, they merely provide a fresh joy of discovery the next time through. They're like old friends who you care about but don't need to talk to on a regular basis. It can be months or years but each reunion is a joy and a pleasure. This film is an old friend to me and I plan to watch it every five years or so for the rest of my life. While a few people don't seem to understand the charm of Amélie, most tend to rank it among their favourite films of all time. I picture these people watching with widened eyes and a knowing smile, an expression that most won't have worn for decades.

Audrey Tautou wears precisely that face for much of the movie. She invites us into her story with a conspiratorial glee and we leap at the chance to hear her secrets. As Amélie, Tautou with her huge twinkling eyes also appears happier than any other actress I've seen on screen, with the only possible exception being her namesake Audrey Hepburn who also had an elfin face that could turn pixie at the slightest notice. Beyond the belief that nobody else could possibly have played Amélie (thank the stars that Hollywood didn't remake it), I'm leaning also towards the belief that the entire film couldn't have been made without her. If Jeunet gave the film its wonder, Tautou gives it its life.

There are things to talk about beyond wonder and life. The use of colour is magnificent, the film being shot in lush greens and yellows, making it appear that the screen has moisture and a life of its own. There's an odd and sparing use of special effects to highlight inner thoughts or the absurdity of situations, and these aid the dreamlike quality of much of the movie. Most especially Amélie contains some of the most ambitious camera movements used in film, but they are so smooth and bewitching that it took me a couple of viewings to even notice them. Far from the great opening shots of films as diverse as Touch of Evil or La Ronde, these seem as inevitable as the laws of gravity only to stun us when we realise just what we're seeing. Talent could be described as the ability to make something incredibly difficult look incredibly easy, and that applies very well indeed to what Jeunet does here.

It isn't just Jeunet either. There are frequent collaborators that pop up throughout his work too. I'm still not sure what Marc Caro does, but whatever it is he's done it in every Jeunet film so far and so presumably it's pretty important. Dominique Pinon is also in every one of Jeunet's movies and he's an incredibly versatile actor who gets better in my eyes every time I see him. Here he's a regular at the Two Windmills who records his thoughts on a dictaphone and who becomes the subject of one of Amélie's happiness strategems. He's great as usual but even better elsewhere, especially as the wheelchair-bound space smuggler in Alien Resurrection.

The net result is that if you're one of those people who wouldn't pick up a French film if it bit you on the behind, pick up this one just because. Make sure it's widescreen and subtitled and get ready to smile. I have no idea which of the little stories will touch you, but I bet one of them will if not a whole host of them. You'll be the beneficiary of Amélie's attempts to bring joy to everyone around her, as much as the blind man she helps across the road, describing at a rapid pace everything she sees, only to vanish up a staircase to leave him somewhat stunned and overwhelmed by emotion. That's what this film does to us. It lost out for the Best Foreign Film Oscar that year to No Man's Land, which is a peach of a movie, no mistake, but this should have won Best Film. Period.

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