All cinema lovers should have a special place in their hearts for films that are unashamedly optimistic and whimsical. There is a lot of darkness in this world, but the world inhabited by the protagonist of Amélie (1999) is one where a happy ending is just about guaranteed if you work for it. Directed by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet it is set in a version of Paris that Jeunet himself has admitted is much cleaner than the real one. No matter. Sometimes you go to the movies for hope, not reality.
I can indeed confirm the French capital is not as rosy as portrayed in Amélie having been lucky enough to go there a few times for vacation/work. I saw the movie on TV just a month prior to going on an internship at radio station in northern France in 2011, and on my days off I would sometimes take the train to go walk the streets of Paris. On my last day I had the chance to see the Eiffel Tower at night, which I believe is the sort of imagery Jeunet was aiming for when making his movie. True, the city is filled with many cigarette butts and the laws forcing people to pick up after their dogs are pretty lax, but there is enough poetry in that city to inspire plenty more of filmmakers like Jeunet.
Amélie (Audrey Tautou), a Parisian waitress, can be best described as Ebenezer Scrooge after he has discovered the true meaning of Christmas, only she doesn’t have money to throw at the masses. That doesn’t stop her from trying to bring joy to as many people as she can, even if she is quite lonely herself due to her shy nature. Her quest to spread cheer is spurred by the discovery of an old metal box she finds behind the bathroom tiles in her apartment. The box if filled with childhood memorabilia and through some amateur detective work she manages to track down the owner (Maurice Bénichou) and devises a clever way to deliver the box to him without ever being seen.
The owner’s reaction sends her on other quests of happiness. Some are relatively easy, such as describing a colourful street to a blind man, and others require a bit more finesse, such as when she sets up her hypochondriac co-worker (Isabelle Nanty) with a customer in the café bathroom and the vibration from their lovemaking can be felt all the way into the kitchen. Amélie’s only darkness surfaces when she decides to be an avenger of sorts against a mean grocer (Urbain Cancelier) who constantly abuses his helper (Jamel Debbouze). True to her whimsical nature she doesn’t hurt him, but messes with his mind by swapping his slippers for a smaller pair and switches his toothpaste for foot cream. It’s a simple and slightly childish revenge scheme, but it gets the job done.
Regarding her own happiness, the poor girl is at a bit of a loss. When she sees a young man called Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), at a train station a close-up of her chest shows her heart beating at a very rapid rate. Nino has some equally oddball habits of his own such as collecting photographs of strangers from passport photo booths, so he would of course be perfect for Amélie. However she is so shy that when she gets a second chance to talk to him she literally melts into a puddle.
That these two will overcome every obstacle in their way and get together at the end is about as obvious as whether or not the Grinch will understand the true meaning of Christmas. Some have criticized the movie for being too picturesque or unrealistic, but audiences the world over have embraced it and its influence can be seen in everything from Bryan Fuller’s show Pushing Daisies to those travel commercials where the gnome is getting his picture taken all over the world.
The cinematography and Jeunet’s direction helped set the film’s very specific tone, but the movie also owes a great deal to Tautou who perfectly embodies the title character. There are probably not many people like Amélie in real life, but if there were the world would be a better place.