A serial Samaritan leads
a tasty tour de force
France's wildly popular movie
celebrates the simple pleasures of
random kindness, but the film itself
was painstakingly cleansed
Consolidated Varsity; Signature Dole Cannery
By Scott VogelIf you're one of those types who feels a distinct sense of guilt at lost opportunities whenever the Best Foreign Language Film statuette is handed out on Oscar night (and hey, who doesn't?), you'll be pleased to know that "Amélie," now squarely on the short list of Academy contenders, is opening today a few thousand miles east of the town in which it first made its splash.
That would be Paris, where "Amélie" was a box office hit of "Titanic" proportions, selling more than $40 million in tickets before jumping the pond in hopes of conquering an America that could use a tale of sweet sunniness right now. Early signs have been encouraging. "A delicious pastry of a movie" wrote Roger Ebert -- who knows pastries -- and many other critics have followed suit.
What's the hoopla about? A magnetic young waitress whose lonely and bleak existence is magically transformed one day after an accidental discovery. Speaking of accidents, it's the same day in 1997 when Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris. Transfixed by the television, Amélie (Audrey Tautou) inadvertently drops an object which promptly rolls into the wall, knocking a tile loose. Intrigued, Amélie looks behind the tile, thereby discovering a cache of treasures that a little boy once placed there for safekeeping.
Amélie embarks on a wholesale search for the objects' original owner. When she finds him, the pleasure she takes in his joyous nostalgia is so complete, so utterly perfect, that Amélie decides immediately to become a 21st century Robin Hood of sorts, performing random acts of kindness wherever she goes. She escorts a blind man down a busy street, for instance, meanwhile providing vivid and emotional descriptions of all he's missing. Her landlady, still grieving the loss of her husband, suddenly receives love letters from the dead man, missives that were supposedly lost in the mail system for decades. (Amélie's really behind them.) And when a grocer is seen cruelly mistreating his learning-disabled son in public, it isn't long before someone sneaks into his apartment and substitutes his toothpaste for foot cream. (Amélie again.)
She's a capricious one, and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet matches Amélie's tendencies with a mise-en-scene that's bright, mercurial and utterly counterfeit. (In interviews, Jeunet has said that nearly every frame of the film was digitally enhanced. When the director's micromanaging entailed removing graffiti from familiar French landmarks, he was charged with artistic dishonesty. When it was noticed that no non-white residents were represented in the film, Jeunet's aesthetic was likened to ethnic cleansing.)
Amélie's life becomes even more whimsical when she becomes enamored of a man named Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz) who takes a similar pleasure in small things. In fact, when she first sees him, Nino is snooping under an instant photo machine in a train station, collecting torn pictures apparently discarded by patrons unhappy with the way they'd turned out. Her ardor is unbounded. Amélie pursues him wholeheartedly, albeit in her own unique way, luring Nino via notes and mysterious phone calls into an inevitable meeting at her restaurant, and things don't end there.
It's a delirious funhouse of a movie that's an unrepentant crowd pleaser, and one that French tourism officials probably welcomed with open arms (especially given the brochure-like beauty of Jeunet's Paris.) Word is that the real-life restaurant where Amélie works -- once a struggling cafe -- is now a bona fide landmark, and the film's director claims he has received much mail from copycat Amélies who've experienced a similar happiness upon dedicating themselves to spreading joy.
That shouldn't surprise you. There's something undeniably irresistible about "Amélie." But there's also something annoying about a film which posits the importance of life's simple pleasures, and then goes on to illustrate them via the latest in state-of-the-art digital enhancement.
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