Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores the delightful bliss of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s ‘Amélie.’
At the risk of being labeled an easy mark for sappy films – a risk and label I’m happy to own – after last week’s Essential pick I’m doubling down this week with a film some people see as even more precious and mushy. Some have even labeled it “quirky” – with the otherwise harmless adjective being used as a pejorative. Can you even imagine such a thing? Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie is inarguably filled to the frame with saccharine sweetness and precisely-shaped imagery meant to move viewers’ hearts, but not only is none of that a bad thing… it’s also only part of the picture.
Jeunet begins his film with seemingly minor observations on a day in the life of Paris ending with the conception and eventual birth of our title character. Her arrival is just one more event in a world filled with them, and while what follows is her story the film reminds us again and again that everyone has their own tale even if they sometimes need a nudge moving it in the right direction.
Young Amélie’s parents, “a neurotic and an iceberg,” have their own peculiarities, all of which help shape the child into an imaginative loner who grows into a kind, shy, young woman (Audrey Tautou) who only wants the best for others. It’s fitting as the child of a doctor and a teacher, both professions aimed at helping people get better, and when she discovers a toy box hidden in her apartment she decides to find its now-grown owner and return it. The visibly overwhelming joy on the man’s face – visible from a distance as she’s uninterested in the discomfort that comes with appreciation and attention— sees her instantly decide to continue bringing unexpected joy to those around her.
She opens up the world to a man trapped in his apartment by illness, she turns helping a blind man cross the street into a whirlwind tour of his neighborhood’s sights, she forges mail to bring calm to a woman torn by the departure of her husband decades prior, and she even toys with her widowed father’s senses by pretending his garden gnome is out traveling the world and sending him photos as a travelogue. (The gag went on to inspire Travelocity’s marketing.)
For all the good she’s doing though two points remain. Not everything she does is nice or works out, and despite all of her efforts she herself remains alone.
That first bit flies in the face of accusations that Amélie is a sickly sweet confection as she is not above acts of revenge. As a child she struck back against a cruel neighbor, but as an adult she’s perfected even more wickedly devious methods. After witnessing the grocer’s treatment of his assistant she meticulously works to drive the man insane. The detail and effort involved reveal a dark streak and a vengeful mind – the man literally ends up calling a psychiatric help hotline (by her design of course) – and the film as a whole has equally dark moments and observations.
Amélie’s mother is killed right in front of her, squashed by a suicidal jumper, and her only friend as a child is equally prone to thoughts of ending it all. Sure that friend is a goldfish named Blubber, but his cries for help – his leaps from the fish bowl to the sweet release of death beyond – are still harbingers of future hopelessness. Her attempt at creating a workplace romance between two lost souls backfires revealing not only her own fallibility but also the film’s acknowledgement that not everyone can be helped. Her struggle is to avoid joining them, but even when she imagines her own funeral – a living saint praised by all but alone in the end – it’s delivered with sadness and a recognition of her own worthless self-pity.
Misery exists in this world despite the bright color palette, playful scenes, and Disneyland-level clean that Jeunet paints the city with – the production actually cleaned streets, walls, parks, etc to to give Amélie’s surroundings an idealized aesthetic. (The other tip off that this world is heightened is the scene showing movie theater patrons who are quietly giving the screen their full attention.)
Amélie’s romantic interest, Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz, director of La Haine) is as much of an odd bird as she is, but his eccentricities and his clear affection for her persona are all we really get – and need – from him. Some have complained that his otherwise slight presence works against the romance, but we know enough of their similarities and differences to trust her here. Her ongoing inability to put herself in front of him, and her ultimate triumph – one that comes only when she’s able to accept the help of others – is the core of the love story. Love isn’t a solitary activity, but it does start with one.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie is a beautiful film not only in the way it speaks to our heart but also in how it’s presented to our eyes and ears. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is lush, vibrant, and paired perfectly with Jeunet’s creative flourishes and visual effects. Yann Tiersen’s score channels our emotions with themes both celebratory and heartfelt, and its primarily piano and accordion-driven sounds embody not just Paris but Jeunet’s Paris in particular. We can hear the heartbeats, whispers, and magic in the music and see their reflections on the screen.
The cast in general is strong, but Tautou anchors the film with outer beauty – those large eyes, that long neck, those ears! – and an emotional core that makes it impossible to ignore her sadness, joy, and every feeling in between. We don’t need to see her physically melt into a puddle (even though we do) because we already see the defeat on her face. Similarly, her smile and soft glance in the final moments show us a relaxed and renewed woman without the need to voice that newfound contentment.
It’s also worth noting that this is one of the rare films that succeeds with a narrator. Far too often filmmakers use narration to fill exposition holes or tell us things they don’t know how to show, but here the voice works to set a stage where everything is connected even as it exists apart. Our unique joys and depressions, the things we notice and the things that are never seen, all of them exist in the same world and carry the same weight.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie is a romantic comedy, but it’s also an expression of creativity and an appreciation of human contact. It has heart and laughs, but it also features darkness, weakness, and multiple orgasms. (Seventeen across the city at last count, although Amélie’s sly smile at the end suggests a couple more off-screen.) Amélie is a woman who finds it easier to relate to those who are gone or at a distance than she does to those around her, and it’s a trait shared by far too many of us in a world where people prefer their phone’s screen to the face of the person beside them. Next time you’re out in public maybe give the phone a break and embrace the quirk of the strangers nearby instead. (Note: don’t embrace the strangers, just their quirks.)
“Without you, today’s emotions would be the scurf of yesterday’s.”