Friday, May 4, 2012

Movie – Amelie (2001)

I have saved the year ending IMDB Top 250 lists since 1998 (more on that in a week or two).  I have used them over the years to get suggestions on films I might want to see.  Back in 2001 a film named Amelie showed up on the list.  It sounded interesting, so I rented it.  I absolutely loved it.  To this day this film still remains one of the very best finds I have ever had from a list of recommended movies.

The style and tone of this film are a little different from your straightforward kinds of movies.  I have seen many people refer to it as “whimsical”.  I hesitate to use that term myself only because in some cases the people using it meant it in a somewhat negative way.  I would describe the film’s tone and style as presenting the world to us just a little bit brighter and better than it actually is.

The film literally starts at the beginning of Amelie Poulain’s life.  A narrator tells us, “On September 3rd, 1973, at 6:28pm and 32 seconds, a bluebottle fly capable of 14,670 wing beats a minute landed on Rue St Vincent, Montmartre. At the same moment, on a restaurant terrace nearby, the wind magically made two glasses dance unseen on a tablecloth. Meanwhile, in a 5th-floor flat, 28 Avenue Trudaine, Paris 9, returning from his best friend's funeral, Eugène Colère erased his name from his address book. At the same moment, a sperm with one X chromosome, belonging to Raphaël Poulain, made a dash for an egg in his wife Amandine. Nine months later, Amélie Poulain was born.”  Accompanying this narration are a series of quick scenes matching the words.

This, along with the opening credits, lets people know that they are going to be in for a different kind of movie experience.  (If you watch the credits closely the young girl’s playtime actions match the credits that appear on screen – i.e. “cinematography” shows her wearing thick glasses; “costumes” shows her having made earrings by hanging cherries over her ears, etc.)  After the credits end we learn that this is Amelie.

Amelie Poulain is an only child.  Her father is distant and her mother dies when she is young.  Her father mistakenly thinks she has a heart condition and keeps her out of school because of it.  Amelie grows up in solitude, using her vivid imagination to keep herself entertained.  Many times the film shows us the world as Amelie sees it, such as when she is photographing a cloud because it is in the shape of a teddy bear.

The film then skips to when Amelie (Audrey Tautou) is a young adult.  She lives on her own and works as a waitress in a shop.  She has spent her 24 years without forming a close relationship to anyone.  She takes pleasure in the small things in life, like finding a perfect stone for skipping on water or looking back at people watching a movie to see their reactions to it. 

One day her life is changed and because of it so are those of everyone who knows her.  Amelie finds an old cache of children’s keepsakes that someone had forgotten.  With some work she tracks down who it belonged to and anonymously returns it to him.  He is visibly moved by this part of his childhood being returned to him and this motivates Amelie to help others.

In her building she intersects with a grocer and his assistant, playing small tricks on the former because he is mean to the latter.  She has a woman living in her building who is still mourning the loss of her husband from decades before.  There is also an elderly man suffering from brittle bone disease who paints.  Despite the fact that Amelie works anonymously, he picks up on the fact of what she is doing and in turn tries to help her.

The people where Amelie works are also included.  The funniest bit is when she hooks up a hypochondriac and a regular customer.  Finally, her father is her hardest case to crack.  He has never traveled anywhere even though he has always wanted to.  His garden gnome disappears and periodically throughout the film he receives unmarked envelopes with photos of the gnome at famous places all over the world.  This was a well known prank in the 1990s that the filmmakers incorporated in their movie.  In fact, there was even an organization known as Front de Liberation des Nains de Jardins (which sounds a lot more impressive than the English translation – Garden Gnome Liberation Front) that claimed responsibility for these pranks.  You may also have seen a certain travel agency use a gnome as its symbol in their TV ads.

Amelie is doing all these things for others, but what about herself?  One day she sees a young man (Mathieu Kassovitz) digging under an automatic photo booth.  He is retrieving the pieces of torn photos.  Amelie is intrigued.  Through a set of circumstances she comes into possession of this man’s notebook.  In it she finds he has glued the pieces of the pictures together.  She notices one man keeps appearing over and over, though.  She wonders about this mystery man and she realizes that this is the same thing that is driving the young man – trying to find out who he is and why he keeps having his photo taken then tearing up the result.

The young man’s name (Nino) and contact info are in the album, but Amelie can’t just straightforwardly return the book.  That would involve letting someone scarily close to her.  She is torn (pun intended) because she really does want to meet him.  She decides on a scheme.  She dresses in costume and mask, has her picture taken in one of those booths, and she tears up the picture so that the young man may find the pieces.  In the photo she is holding a sign telling him where and when to meet her.

Obviously, this is not the most efficient way to ensure someone makes a scheduled meeting, but it is Amelie’s way.  When the time seems to come and pass Amelie’s imagination kicks into gear.  As the narrator tells us, “Nino is late. Amelie can only see two explanations. 1 - He didn't get the photo. 2 - Before he could assemble it, a gang of bank robbers took him hostage. The cops gave chase. They got away...but he caused a crash. When he came to, he'd lost his memory. An ex-con picked him up, mistook him for a fugitive, and shipped him to Istanbul. There he met some Afghan raiders who took him to steal some Russian warheads. But their truck hit a mine in Tajikistan. He survived, took to the hills, and became a Mujaheddin. Amelie refuses to get upset for a guy who'll eat borscht all his life in a hat like a tea cozy.”  Just like the opening of the film, we see a quick set of scenes matching these images from Amelie’s imagination.  They are quite amusing.

As luck would have it, Nino does assemble the photo and does show up.  From everything we have been shown of Nino we know that he and Amelie would be perfect for each other, if only they could meet.  At this point, though, Amelie chickens out.  She can’t quite bring herself to admit to him that it is she in the photo.  In a great use of cgi in a non-special effects film, we see Amelie collapsing into a puddle of water – a perfect metaphor for how she is feeling inside.  All is not lost, though.  I did mention earlier that the elderly painter in her building was very perceptive and was looking for a way he could return the favor to Amelie.

I could not imagine a better actress to play Amelie than Audrey Tautou.  She has a wonderfully expressive face.  This is a good thing since she actually does not have a ton of dialogue in the film.  There are a couple of times, though, where she breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to us, as if she is taking us into her confidence.  Although he was a part-time actor, Mathieu Kassovitz was probably better known at the time for his directing.  His best film is 1995’s La Haine, which could not be any further in tone from Amelie if it tried.  It is a powerful film, though, and you should check it out if you get a chance.

The many supporting players are also great in their small parts.  The film was co-written and directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who was known for his films Delicatessen and City of Lost Children (you can read my review of that here.)  Dominique Pinon, a regular in Jeunet’s films, appears in this one as the regular customer who Amelie sets up in a romance.

The film Amelie would go on to receive five Academy Award nominations, including ones for Cinematography and Original Screenplay.  It would lose Best Foreign Language film to No Man’s Land, which I have not yet seen.  I find it hard to imagine a better foreign film that year than Amelie, though.  In France, Amelie was nominated for an astounding 13 Cesars, winning four of them (including Best Picture).

I mentioned at the beginning that the film appeared on the IMDB Top 250 back in 2001.  I just checked and eleven years later it is still on there at position #55.  This is remarkable considering today’s list is heavily weighted towards “guy’s films”.  Anything with a hint of romance in it usually gets voted off the list.  In this case, women have rated the film at 8.7 and men have rated it right there with them at 8.5.  Critics love the film, too.  It is 90% Fresh at Rotten Tomatoes (95% Fresh from 435,000 Audience votes).

I have sometimes heard people say that they fell in love with a movie character.  I’ve never been able to tell if they mean that figuratively or literally.  For me, I have never literally fallen in love with a movie character, but if ever there was one that I wanted to hold in my arms and reassure that she would find happiness and love, it’s Amelie Poulain.  I give this film my highest recommendation.

Chip’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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  1. I didn't love it but I can definitely say it's one of those films I would watch if I was ever down in the dumps. Very charming, very light, and very happy flick. Nothing wrong with that at all. Good review Chip.

  2. I love, love, love, love, love, love this film. I'm just upset that I don't own the 2-disc DVD set. I fell in love with Audrey Tautou after this film and I will do a piece on Jeunet next year.

  3. I echo Dan O. in that I didn't love it but I very much enjoyed it (so hardcore like, just not quite love). I adore the stylization of the film, and I definitely think that Jeunet has an astonishing eye. One of my favorite things about it is the perfect quiet and silence in the climactic moment of the film. It's a lovely change of pace from the zaniness of the rest of the film to have this quiet, beautiful, elegant meeting. Great review!

  4. This movie is my Prozac. If I'm ever feeling down, I just pop this in.

  5. @Dan O. - "it's one of those films I would watch if I was ever down in the dumps." I agree. Thanks.

    @thevoid99 - I look forward to your Jeunet set. If you really want to own the Amelie 2 disk set (which is what is in my collection) that's the Amazon DVD link I put at the bottom of the post. I didn't use the 1 disk version link because I felt the 2 disk was much better.

    @siochembio - I completely agree on that scene. Both have lived internal lives, so it is completely in character that they not start chatting away. Thanks.

    @Dave Enkosky - You had me worried with the first sentence, but then I saw where you were going with it. It's definitely a movie to make your mood better.

  6. I remember starting to see this movie a long time ago, maybe 5 or 6 years, and stopping after 30 minutes, as it was too boring. I must have been a silly little girl then, I will definitely give it another try soon! Great review!

  7. I love this film. There are few films I can think of that are so filled with joy from start to finish. Even the down moments tend to be cute and sweet.

    And yeah, Amelie Poulan is the movie character I'd most like to have a long, passionate affair with. No, she's the movie character I'd most like to spend a life with.

  8. @Diana - Well, no movie is for everyone. I can't say that I've ever heard Amelie described as boring, though. Most negatives I've read are that it "isn't serious enough" or that "it's a piece of fluff". (Neither of which I agree with, by the way.)

    @SJHoneywell - I agree with everything you wrote. Thanks.

  9. Amelie is an absolutely beautiful film. Tautou creates a character such an original character that you can't help but embrace Amelie. Tautou and Jeunet also worked on A Very Long Engagement together, which is another outstanding film. BTW, No Man's Land is very good, it is more of a message film (takes place during the Balkan conflict), so I suspect this is why it took home the Oscar.

  10. @Kim Wilson - Thanks for the info on those other two films. I had A Very Long Engagement in my Netflix Instant queue for months, but it disappeared without me watching it. It's now available again and I've put it at the top of the queue. I'm hoping to see it sometime soon.

  11. This is one of my all time favorite movies, the very rare kind of a film that actually fills the viewer with happiness. I did hear though that the win for No Man's Land is completely deserved, though I have never seen the movie.

  12. @Sati. - "the very rare kind of a film that actually fills the viewer with happiness" I completely agree. Thanks.

  13. @All - I just watched No Man's Land to see how I felt it compared to Amelie. While I thought it was a good film (although very predictable), I feel Amelie is definitely the better of the two.