“Times are hard for dreamers.” So muses one character in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s new film. Apart from being the sad truth, it’s a neat summation of why “Amélie” is destined to be this year’s biggest foreign-language hit.
After his misadventure directing the woeful Alien Resurrection in the land of the philistines, Jeunet is back where he belongs: France. And the quirky, magical-realist fairytale of “Amélie” is as much a love letter to Paris as it is a showcase for its adorable leading lady, Audrey Tautou. Liberated from the soundstage confines of his previous work, Jeunet takes 80 locations all over Paris and molds every inch of them to fit his candy-colored vision of Amélie’s world. (Specifically, the film is set in Montmarte. Les Deux-Moulins, the café in which Amélie works, is real, and right up the road from the actual Moulin Rouge – imagine the tourism!)
A jaw-droppingly energetic and imaginative prologue establishes Amélie Poulain as a child, a soulful outsider, isolated from her rigid parents but roiling with imagination and wonder. Jeunet has spoken of having had “enough ideas for four or five films,” and this fast and funny introduction shows it. Every frame is packed, every element directed within an inch of its life. For all of Tautou’s considerable charm, Jeunet is clearly the star of this show — a little cheeky, but undeniably masterful. He revels in eccentricity, with a unique feel for texture, details, human quirks few other directors take the time to notice. Jeunet can sometimes be a bit pleased with his own cleverness…but when you’re as supernaturally clever as he is, who can complain?
Following the prologue’s surprising climax, we find Amélie as a young adult, alone in her apartment one night. That night happens to be August 30th 1997, and the real world intrudes: Amélie’s TV announces the violent death of Princess Diana. It’s a jarring moment, a rip in Jeunet’s wonderland tapestry — and a poignant reminder that Di’s sad end was the last time before 9/11 in which the civilized world was so united by shared grief.
The event also turns out to be the catalyst for Amélie’s journey of kindheartedness. Namely, she decides to set to rights the lives of everyone around her. The mission begins with a forgotten box of childhood ephemera, which Amélie anonymously returns to its owner. The result is so wonderfully touching that from there, Amélie takes off on a citywide mission of matchmaking and score-settling.
But, it goes without saying, it’s her own love life which really demands attention. Will Amélie find a love she can call her own? Do the French drink lots of red wine and smoke stinky cigarettes?
It’s been eons, it seems, since any French auteur has dealt with the joys of romantic success rather than the repercussions of romantic failure. The fact that Jeunet portrays the quest in such an aggressively sunny fashion is but one reason why “Amélie” is poised to become the most popular French film ever to land on these shores. Jeunet almost seems to be atoning for the lack of life-affirming whimsy in most French imports since the days of, oh, Jacques Tati. Since Jeunet’s apparent split from co-director Marc Caro – who may have been responsible for the darker tones of their “Delicatessen” and “City of Lost Children” – he has obviously brightened up quite a bit. The director crams as much joie de vivre as humanly possible into this film; it’s a Wal-Mart sized knickknack shop stuffed with goodies, but all catalogued and arranged down to the tiniest detail.
The whimsy can sometimes feel strenuous, but Jeunet always manages to stay just this side of the Hollywood Hard Sell. If “Amélie” were American, of course, it would waste no time drowning us all in rivers of sticky sap. With a Frenchman’s true stoicism, though, Jeunet keeps the schmaltz in check. And judging by the film’s astounding popularity in its native land, the people are grateful indeed.
It doesn’t hurt to have such an angelic presence in the lead role as Audrey Tautou, either. All bobbed black hair, porcelain skin, enormous brown eyes and toothy grin, she’s fascinating to behold. As many will point out, her first name is apt. All the classic Audrey (Hepburn, that is) adjectives apply: gamine, luminous and sexy in the most delicate, playful, innocent way. In all, Tautou is the most adorable Frenchwoman to grace movie screens since we first laid eyes on La Binoche in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” If Tautou plays her career cards right, she could end up as big an étoile, too.
The other actors provide her with terrific support. As Nino, the goal of Amélie’s amorous pursuit, Mathieu Kassovitz gives a charming performance. (Kassovitz is also an accomplished director, whose “Hate” must rank with “Delicatessen” and “City of Lost Children” among the best French films of the ’90s.) It’s also always fun to see Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon, blessed with a mug Fellini would have killed for and never less than hilarious.
Unfortunately, the coy game of hide-and-seek between Amélie and Nino ends up taking over the narrative, to rather wearisome effect. Amélie is such a fireball in other ways that her indecision here feels unnecessarily protracted, and toward the two-hour mark it becomes frustrating.
It should be noted too that the film’s R rating is regrettable. It’s a benign R, given for a few blasts of comical sexuality – in fact, both scenes here bring back fond memories of the ingenious “squeaky bedspring montage” from “Delicatessen.” But the rating is sure to severely limit admissions, and that’s a real shame. With a PG, “Amélie” could have easily surpassed the grosses of “Life is Beautiful” and then some.
The Oscar is another matter, however. The last French import to win the Best Foreign Film honor was the stodgy, sudsy “Indochine” almost ten years ago. (If that wasn’t a laughably typical choice, nothing is.) One can only hope that 2002 will again see the Academy admit, as it did last spring with a certain Asian martial-arts epic, that “Hey, them subtitled flicks can be a pretty good time too!”
Times are good for French cinema, with old masters Godard, Rohmer, Rivette and Chabrol turning out their best work in years. For moviegoers there, the success of “Amélie” has been a great big cherry on a very rich cake.
But times are indeed hard for dreamers, and “Amélie” has graced America at the perfect moment. Boy, do we need it now.