Oddballs find love in Paris: The quirky charms of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s ‘Amélie’

September 24, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 24, 2014

Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a French moviemaker with whose first English-language feature film was 1997’s lamentable Alien Resurrection, the fourth and presumably final entry in the pioneering science fiction and horror crossover series. Jeunet’s 2001 follow-up, Amélie, was about as different a movie from Resurrection as could possibly be imagined.

The eponymous protagonist of Amélie, a French-language comedy set in contemporary Paris, is a pretty young waitress enamored of whimsy and mischief. An only child, she grew up with an emotionally distant father and a highly neurotic mother (now deceased). The Poulains home-schooled Amélie because her father, a physician, mistakenly believed that she had a weak heart and was unable to bear the stress of having rough-and-tumble playmates. As an adult, she tends to keep to herself.

On the night of Princess Diana’s death, the adult Amélie (Audrey Tatou) accidentally discovers a cache of childhood mementos that was hidden in her apartment decades previously. When she returns the box to its owner, he is greatly moved, and Poulain resolves to do good deeds for those around her.

To that end, Poulain sets up a co-worker with a customer at her cafe, sends her father’s garden gnome on a world-wide journey, shares amusing video clips with her shut-in neighbor, and plays tricks to punish the local grocer for his habit of verbally abusing his slow-witted assistant.

Poulain also hesitantly flirts with Nino Quincompoix (Mathieu Kassovitz), a handsome, whimsical young man whom she sees rooting around the floors and garbage bins of automated photo booths throughout the city. She’s encouraged in this dalliance by her neighbor, Raymond Dufayel (Serge Merlin), the elderly shut-in, whose hobby is painting reproductions of Renoir masterpieces.

The plot may not amount to much, but Jeunet — working off a screenplay that he co-wrote with Guillaume Laurant — imbues the proceedings with flair. The film boasts a cheeky narrative voice-over, a bright visual palette and whimsical special effects and short scenes. Amélie’s rapidly beating heart and a key she hides in her pocket are highlighted by quick bursts of animation, and after one exploit, she’s shown wearing a Zorro costume and carving the letter Z into an enemy’s door with a rapier.

Jeunet has the perfect lead for this charming nonsense in the elfin Tatou, who was about 25 at the time of the movie’s release. Indeed, everyone in the cast seems to be having fun.

The ingredients combine to give Amélie’s Paris an enchanting aspect, not unlike Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. (Actually, Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a closer match in tone.) The difference is that Amélie feels much more natural than Grand Budapest Hotel; the latter work is populated with types, whereas the characters in Jeunet’s film seem much more like actual people.

Amélie isn’t truly a great work of art, but it is an endearing piece of entertainment — a charming romantic comedy for the quirky set. Even those with a mild aversion to subtitles will likely find this film to be well worth viewing.

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