In Charm's Way 

Feeling out French fantasy Amélie.

The French art-house hit Amélie is the kind of film that can be exhilarating to watch (it was rapturously received at both of the packed screenings I attended) but also leave you with niggling doubts after you leave the theater.

The film has been a massive success in France almost on a par with the Titanic or Harry Potter crazes here but also a massive controversy. According to the film's many French critics, Amélie's fairy-tale, postcard-pretty Paris, fetishization of carefully selected French cultural icons (Renoir, Truffaut, the Tour de France), and homogeneous cast amount to reactionary propaganda, a purposeful negation of the ethnic diversity and immigrant culture that characterizes contemporary Paris. The film's hand-wringing and dueling critiques in France are similar to what Forrest Gump might have inspired here if more Americans were actively concerned with cultural politics.

Co-written and directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who made Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children with former partner Marc Caro), Amélie opens with a long prelude section in which a comically clinical male voice-over recounts the unhappy childhood of Amélie Poulain, a little girl so desperate for attention from her cold-fish, M.D. dad that when he actually touches her for yearly medical checkups, her heart races, convincing him that she has a heart condition and should be home-schooled. With a lack of stimulus from family and no real friends, Amélie develops a wildly creative inner life.

The film flashes forward to Amélie as a young woman (Audrey Tautou), a waitress at a picturesque Montmartre café, living alone in a neighborhood flat. The film's main plot is set in motion by a minor miracle when Amélie discovers a box of childhood trinkets lodged behind her bathroom wall, left by a boy who lived in her flat 50 years before. Amélie tracks the now-grown man down and anonymously delivers the hidden treasure, the man's joy inspiring her to become an amateur do-gooder.

Most of the film is then centered on Amélie's surreptitious attempts to improve the lives of her co-workers, neighbors, and lonely father. Amélie plays matchmaker to a hypochondriacal co-worker and a bitter café patron, acts as an avenging angel at the corner market where the grocer is unfairly chastising his simpleminded assistant, befriends a shut-in painter in her apartment building, concocts a forgery to make her weeping concierge believe that the woman's long-dead, philandering husband went to the grave loving her, and, in one of the film's most delightful subplots, frees her father's garden gnome. But Amélie is so busy helping others that she neglects herself, a problem eventually solved via a hesitant, expertly plotted cat-and-mouse game between Amélie and one potential suitor that unfolds slowly throughout the film. The film is a fairy tale, touched by magical realism, but a very healthy one in that change is driven by the positive actions of its heroine.

With her big brown eyes and Louise Brooks bob, Tautou is a stunner. She's constantly being compared to Audrey Hepburn, but Tautou is less porcelain and precious to these eyes. Despite Tautou's magnetism, Jeunet relies too heavily on her cuteness, constantly having Tautou gaze into the camera with a conspiratorial cock of an eyebrow, essentially winking at the audience in an unfortunate gesture that merely symbolizes the film's biggest flaw its overeagerness to please.

Amélie reminds me a little of the films of Wes Anderson (Rushmore, Bottle Rocket), which also seem to occur in a not-quite-real alternate universe and evoke the great '40s and '50s comedies of Lubitsch, Sturges, McCarey, and Hawks, films which were, in their own right, pretty artificial. Amélie is similar to Anderson's work in its extreme attention to detail, its fetishized mise-en-scène, and its use of funny and effective expository or parenthetical asides: in Rushmore, the breakneck litany of Max Fisher's extracurricular activities; in Amélie, the staccato ticking off of the eccentric but also quite ordinary likes and dislikes of individual characters, a catalog of sensory and textural pleasures such as dipping a hand in a bucket of grain, popping bubble wrap, stripping wallpaper, or the sound of a porcelain bowl settling on a tile floor.

Though Amélie's charms aren't as natural as those of Anderson's films it's the kind of movie that does handstands and cartwheels so you'll notice how adorable it is and it has nowhere near the emotional depth of something like Rushmore, it is a charmer. The modern aspect that distances Amélie from the early comedies it evokes isn't just explicit sexual references or special effects, it's the film's reliance on gimmickry to provoke a reaction from the audience. Amélie ultimately walks that tightrope between cloying and enchanting with remarkable skill. You'll probably be enchanted, but dwell on it afterward and you may detect a manipulative aftertaste.

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