I’m hesitant to call Amélie whimsical, though it’s the closest adjective. The film’s kind of a French New Wave-inspired fairy tale, except instead of being about magic magic, it’s about the magic of the everyday and, especially, its residents. There’s also something decidedly not fairy tale about protagonist Audrey Tautou’s quests. Broadly, Amélie is about Tautou interceding in her neighbors’ lives for good, but getting reluctant when she needs to act with as much agency in her own life.
The film sets Tautou’s character up with narration, something it keeps up throughout the whole film (flawlessly performed by André Dussollier). In summary, we meet Tautou’s individually and collectively odd parents—father Rufus and mother Lorella Cravotta—who keep young Tautou (a delightful Flora Guiet) isolated from other children. When Cravotta dies tragically, it gets even worse. A time-lapse and some narration later, Tautou enters the film.
She lives alone, except when babysitting someone’s cat, and keeps to herself. Then one day, she discovers someone’s forgotten treasure and charges herself with returning it to the person, who she doesn’t know, and who she doesn’t have any good information about. Getting better information requires Tautou to branch out into the world, which also provides her with further “do-gooding” opportunities (the film’s—or at least the English subtitles—word) for later as she discovers the sad state of her neighbors.
The film runs two hours, which includes a full subplot about annoying but apparently not dangerous and still lusty Dominique Pinon. Tautou works at a café near her apartment. Pinon used to date her co-worker, Clotilde Mollet, and now spends his day in the café stalking Mollet. Does France not have the right to refuse service? Café owner Claire Maurier knows Pinon’s harassing Mollet, knows Pinon’s interfering with Mollet doing her work, and being disruptive to other customers, but just shrugs at the inevitably of some men being that way. Eventually, as part of her new lifestyle approach, Tautou decides the best solution is to set Pinon up with another employee, hypochondriac Isabelle Nanty.
Tautou also gets involved with grocery clerk Jamel Debbouze and his abusive boss, played by Urbain Cancelier. Despite Cancelier being profoundly shitty to Debbouze, this subplot is probably Amélie’s lightest or at least most played for laughs. Tautou ensures Cancelier gets his just desserts in a pair of hilarious echoed sequences.
But her two most significant relationship developments are with dad Rufus and neighbor Serge Merlin. Rufus and Tautou start just as detached as the flashbacks show; once she realizes her capacity for playfully interfering for good, she also figures Rufus can benefit. It’s another subplot played for humor, with Merlin taking on the surrogate dad-for-character-development part.
Merlin’s a painter with osteogenesis imperfecta. Tautou’s only slightly aware of him, seeing him through the window in his apartment where all the furniture is covered in pillows so he doesn’t break any bones on it. The narration fills in the rest—the narration foreshadows all the pertinent characters, pausing on everyone long enough to give a brief character description and (usually for a smile) likes and dislikes. Amélie’s narration spends the first act handing the film over to Tautou and then shares some space with her alter ego and potential love interest, played by Mathieu Kassovitz. While Kassovitz doesn’t really join the action until halfway through the film, the film at least lets Tautou find out about him in scene. Tautou’s ground situation is dead mom, distant dad, isolated childhood, now in her early twenties. She doesn’t have a character development arc because the film never takes the time to establish her as a character, which allows for fun, impromptu diversions, but—even for something straddling magical realism—is a noticeable dodge.
Tautou’s charming, but director Jeunet’s exceptionally deliberate about framing her as such. In the third act, when people around her have to conspire to get her more active in her own destiny, there’s a slightly jarring shift in the narrative distance. Kassovitz suddenly becomes more the co-lead and even protagonist, with Tautou reduced to her life only having meaning as a romantic pursuit. At that point, Amélie starts leaning hard on the affable supporting cast—Debbouze and Merlin in particular—to distract from Tautou’s agency going out the window.
Though I suppose the approach would work just fine if Jeunet and screenwriter Guillaume Laurant (well, Jeunet and Laurant did the scenario, then Laurant did the dialogue; no WGF, I guess) were trying to comment on Tautou’s interfering adventures when she’s on the other side, but they don’t. Tautou’s strangely disinterested in the results of her actions, regardless of their positive or negative outcomes.
All the acting’s good or better. Ditto the technicals. Hervé Schneid’s editing is excellent, and while surprisingly muted, Bruno Delbonnel’s photography is strong. Good music from Yann Tiersen. And while I’m curious if Jeunet asked costume designer Madeline Fontaine to make Tautou dress like an Audrey Hepburn character or if it was Fontaine’s idea, very good costumes.
It’s a little long, and the third act’s wobbly (but most of the second act already forecasts the wobble, so it’s not a surprise); Amélie’s often hilarious, usually funny, and always delightful.
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