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First Chapters
September Issue

Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
starring Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz, Dominique Pinon
Sam North

The curious thing about Amelie is not how wonderful it is or funny or how happy the audiences are when watching this eccentric but captivating film but just how ill equipped most British reviewers are to cope with something uplifting and full of joy.

They heap praise on such miserable films as ‘Code Unknown ’ Dir Michael Haneke or talk rapturously about the young director of ‘George Washington ’ a film set in a dead-end Tennessee town as the new Terence Malik. (Both films are slow, tortuous to watch and disadvantaged by a complete absence of a story - a key element of good movie making). When the critic of the Financial Times says that ‘Amelie is a placard for meaningless optimism...and above all I hate HER’ you know that this film is something special. It has touched a raw nerve. Critics are really happy to send us to turgid ill-concieved naturalistic portrayals of rape or torture or depravity (see ‘Intimacy ’ Directed by Partrice Chereau) because somehow this may make them feel less embarrassed about their expense accounts - they may also loathe the idea of a European film being ‘popular’. After all Godard made a reputation out of alienating his audience and critics loved him. Truffaut was hated for being popular but eventually he was much missed as few other French film makers could reach mass audiences around the world after him.

And so to Jeunet’s Amelie - following on from ‘Delicatessen’ and ‘City of Lost Children ’ (I’ll skip the Alien movie) This film is as far away from current British cinema as it is possible to go, yet evokes a cosier world that has similarities to the old Ealing comedies, but with a twist.

Audrey Tautou as Amelie is cute and pretty, but like the weird child she was in the earlier part of the movie, is strange and eccentric, alienated from society. She is not a conventional heroine and those who choose to concentrate on the sweetness of the film do not look at the darker more sinister element she represents. All she does is for other people’s good but it could have all gone so easily wrong and been misinterpreted . Jeunet took a risk too. His audiences are used to his strange contrived ‘special’ worlds. Delicatessen is possibly set in a post-nuclear war France in the 1950's and the only food to eat is each other. In the hands of a Hollywood director it would have terrifying, or ludicrous. In Jeunet’s hands it is macabre but visually stunning, hilarious and fantastically well observed and to watch this film is to own it and treasure it. The City of Lost Children again creates a special world what just could not exist outside of grotesque fairy-tales. A giant befriends a beautiful young girl - who is a thief. They search for a child the giant thinks is his brother. The child, like most of the other children, have been snatched by a religious cult who seek to sell the children to a scientist who experiments on children to enable him to regain the ability to dream. The subtext might be cruel, the people grotesque, the world he creates fantastic, but again, this is a film that dips cuteness in acid and was at the time one of the most expensive French films ever made.

Amelie, written with a new partner, takes Jeunet back to his roots. An earlier short film ‘I Love, I hate’ also starring Dominique Pinon uses almost all the elements that are now embedded within Amelie.: quick cuts,a series of montages, mugging to the camera, a self-aware acknowledgement of the camera and set pieces. It is funny and at the same time provides all the clues to what has now become Amelie.

Jeunet has, as before, created a special world. An impossibly cute, quiet, Paris. The very thing that critics seem to object to is what is in effect the exact thing we go to Jeunet films to enjoy. His ability to make the familiar strange and ethereal. Monmatre is almost devoid of people and cars and dog shit and is a lot better for it.

We begin with the birth of Amelie to weird repressed parents who grow up believing she has a weak heart and so she is educated at home. She has to create make-believe friends and longs to leave for the real world. It is so depressing her fish tries to commit suicide. Her mother passes away, her father becomes even more eccentric and although he longs to travel will not leave the home. Amelie finally does.

As a grown up we find she is a waitress in a cafe in Monmatre. This Paris is not full of glamourous people, but ordinary characters with flaws and longings but little ambition. Amelie finds a tin box behind her bathroom wall - filled with childhood memories. She resolves to find the owner and return it and furthermore, if the man enjoys it, she will dedicate her life to making other people happy. It’s whimsical, impossible, but of course, in a movie, totally logical. How she goes about it however shows that she is cunning, devious, calculating and resolute.

Her attempts to make a racist green grocer moderate his behavior to his immigrant assistant determined and the results funny. Amelie isn’t trying to change the world and watching this won’t stop the bombing of Afghanistan. You do not have to feel guilty that you are watching a film that will make you happy. It has been the most successful French film in a decade. This is no reason to put the film down because it has struck a nerve with the French. Those audiences are heartily sick of depressing French movies such as ‘Code Unknown’. They want pacy well shot and acted films such as Mathieu Kassovitz’s own ‘Crimson Rivers’ earlier this year. Amelie is eccentric and cute, but it is funny and acutely observed and devoid of cynicism and as such it has opened a door and let in a gale to blown away the stale offerings elsewhere.

And for those who look for roots and influences upon Jeunet. Look no further than Jacques Tati and ‘Monsieur Hulot’. Amelie is more slick, funnier, absurd and ultimately rewarding and it is immensely encouraging that for once a French film has opened in fifteen cinemas in London and I hope that it finds the audience it needs. Certainly as the bombs fall in Afghanistan, it is no crime to want to see something to reaffirm your faith in human nature.

© Sam North October 2001


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