Simple enough in concept, Amélie, brims with originality, surprises, and some shocking black humor. The story is ostensibly straightforward. A young woman from Montmartre goes on a Samaritan spree helping a range of people find happiness before finding it for herself. But it isn’t told in a straightforward fashion, but with a distinctly French flare for kooky surrealism. Everyone here is eccentric. Amélie’s landlady stuffed her dead dog and poised it to face the portrait of her dead husband, the local grocery is a bumbling grouch, and there isn’t a sane person in the diner where Amélie works as a waitress.
Amélie (Audrey Tautou) herself is an outsider. She has no boyfriend, is reclusive, and muted. But Amélie takes too long to develop her character and it never quite solves this problem. By the end of the film we have little understanding of who exactly we have seen developing.
This is a well crafted but inaccessible film, remaining deliberately abstract, never allowing us into its world. This robs the film of certain warmth it needs to succeed as a fable. Amélie is, after all, told like a legend in the wind, quite in tune with the European storytelling’s fascination with bittersweet morality. Strangely, Amélie has a lot of commonalities with two Mexican films released around the same time. As did Like Water for Chocolate and, to a lesser degree, Amores Perros, Amélie combines elements of fantasy, or at least implausible wackiness (such as a suicidal goldfish), with reality. Like Pan’s Labyrinth it shelters two distinct worlds, unlike other such films in which the “reality” is as stylized as the fantasy world. In Amélie, however, the boundaries between dreams, imagination, and reality are dissolved. It uses various techniques ranging from a child’s imagination, stock footage, dreams, and an omni present narrator states the jokes and puns matter-of-factly, while knowing well how out of place they would have been had Amélie been told as a traditional fairy-tale.
But the originality of Amélie is purely superficial. At its core, Amélie is as simpering a melodrama as Pay it Forward. In fairness to the film, it masquerades its banality well enough so that it doesn’t become evident until the last ten minutes. It does this by playing with tropes. Her widowed father (Rufus) is neglectful, obtuse, but also loving. The possession of all three traits simultaneously was an apparent impossibility according to most films. The couple tailored together by Amélie finds each other, but their happiness is not without headaches. Movies provide escape for Amélie, but she is as skeptical about their optimism as any Paulette.
Amélie is arranged like a game of chopsticks, each story slightly grazing another. For instance, Amélie’s quest to find the owner of a tin box she discovers in her bathroom (the event that kick starts her mission to bring joy to the world), brings us to the story of her landlady and her philandering husband, which in turn leads us to a frail painter living across the way who understands Amélie.
Being a fable, Amélie is allegorical. It’s allegorical about many things including growing up, finding happiness, and how a lonely upbringing creates a great mind. Happiness doesn’t come without tragedy. For instance, the death of Amélie’s mother inspires her to leave home and find herself. Additionally, the death of Princess Diana is what causes her to lose concentration and, as a result, discovering the hidden tin box. Finally, the movie asks us what really brings happiness. As in mythology, what heroes seek is merely a symbol of what they truly find. Georgette (Isabelle Nanty), the chatty waitress pins her man, but what she really discovers is self-confidence. Dominique (Maurice Bénichou) recovers his childhood tin box but his real reward is the realization that he has to make amends with his estranged daughter. Amélie learns that it isn’t enough to be a good luck fairy, but she also has to fulfill her needs and land her prince charming, coming in the form of Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), a loner and train terminal dweller who spends his time making album out of pictures he pieces together from scraps beneath the photo booth. Now, Nino is a hip bohemian so why he is afraid to talk to women is inexplicable. For that matter, why a woman with a smile as infectious as Amélie’s is so reclusive is an even greater mystery.
There is much to admire in Amélie. It is a visually sumptuous work and its sense of humor is hard to resist. At times, it’s off the wall nutty at others its pure glorious slapstick (Amélie’s revenge on the surly grocer and her interference of a neighbor’s TV watching). But it never invites us in and that’s what keeps it so emotionally distant. It’s more like a weird dream that a rewarding experience.