Who’d have thought that a movie involving debilitating disease, garbage-scavenging artists and a porno theater could be one of the most innocent, playful films in recent memory—and a comedy at that? French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, that’s who, and his third major release also ranks as one of the funniest and best-crafted films—foreign or domestic—of the year.
It goes without saying that Amélie has a firm grasp of the absurd. We meet Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) through a voiced-over recap of her likes and dislikes; the former category includes dipping her hand in barrels of grain and cracking the fine crust of a crème brûlée with a teaspoon. Home-schooled by neurotic, hugging-averse parents, she grows up painfully shy and enclosed in her own fantasy world. Unfortunately, her adult life doesn’t seem much better. She works as a waitress in a quintessentially Parisian café, where the regulars comprise a dysfunctional family of their own. But one day she discovers a box of toys in her apartment and resolves to find its owner. This sets her on a quest to improve the lives of her neighbors, which ranges from humbling the arrogant to playing matchmaker for the romantically frustrated. In the course of this work, she runs across Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz), an adult bookstore employee and carnival worker who spends his free time collecting and arranging discarded pictures from instant-photo booths in train stations. She realizes that one last life needs improving—her own—and returning Nino’s lost photo album provides the perfect opportunity for a coy game of girl-chases-boy. This cheerful innocence springs chiefly from Amélie’s adorable impishness, which Tautou conveys almost effortlessly. The slightest smile and the most imperceptible raise of an eyebrow convey so much, whether childlike awe or mischievous glee. In her hands, even an over-the-top line like, “I’m nobody’s little weasel,” comes across with precisely the right mixture of poignance and irony.
Kassovitz does the same for his role, helping Nino’s earnest charm overshadow his seedy lifestyle. In fact, Nino is often the film’s most likeable character; for all of Amélie’s shy allure, she seems aggravatingly out of touch with the reality around her. The large supporting cast is just as stellar, providing a neighborhood full of eccentric foils for Amélie’s do-gooding. Urbain Cancelier and Jamel Debbouze are particularly amusing as the domineering greengrocer and his meticulous assistant, whose neatly arranged stand doubles as a local meeting-place. If anything, the subplots are so engrossing that one feels vaguely cheated by their brevity. What’s more, Jeunet sets his film in the sort of immaculate Paris that makes tourism boards salivate. Everything is gorgeous here, from Amélie’s apartment to the subway platforms Nino scours. The characters inhabit a fantasy version of the Montmartre district, miraculously free of gawking tourists and the souvenir shops that attract them. Of course, there’s the obligatory accordion soundtrack, but it serves well to keep the mood light and link some otherwise disjointed scenes. That’s not to say that all of Jeunet’s choices are judicious; the charmingly absurd often lapses into the offensively cutesy. Most of the special effects (e.g. the visible, three-dimensional beating of Amélie’s heart) are a bit too Ally McBeal for the film’s own good, not to mention the “X-Files”-style flashes of light and swelling chords that announce important events. Tautou is simply too expressive an actress to need such devices, and their presence is overkill.
But all concerns aside, what sets Amélie apart from its peers is the film’s refusal to take itself too seriously. Certainly, Amélie’s relationship with the Man of Glass (an elderly neighbor so named for his severe bone disease) adds an intellectual counterpoint to all the levity. But just when it seems that Jeunet is establishing another dour subplot, he kicks it to the curb with one of the film’s simplest and best jokes. It’s clear that Jeunet and his cast are having fun with this film, and the enthusiasm is contagious. After the recent release of The Closet, the new standard for French comedy seemed impossibly high, but Amélie raises the bar once again. It’s hard to believe that Jeunet will ever be able to outdo himself—but if he teams up again with Tautou and Kassovitz, consider the result a must-see.
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