Amélie at 20: how has the sugar-sweet Parisian whimsy aged?

There’s a defining moment early in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie when Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou), a painfully shy and uncommonly adorable waitress at the Two Windmills cafe in Montmartre, arranges the return of childhood treasures to a middle-aged man who’d hidden them in her apartment building 40 years earlier. She has gone through an exhaustive search to find this man, meeting all manner of eccentric Parisians along the way, but she eventually summons the right person to a phone booth and watches the tears roll down his cheeks as this tin full of trinkets unleashes a flood of memories.

As she glides blissfully through the frame, the narrator says, “Amélie has a strange feeling of absolute harmony. It’s a perfect moment. A soft light, a scent in the air, the quiet murmur of the city. A surge of love, an urge to help mankind overcomes her.”

Amélie is not really a film about love, as much as its heroine does to manufacture it for others — and finally, winsomely, for herself. And Amélie is not really a film about altruism, either, given how much time she spends tormenting the nasty greengrocer (Urbain Cancelier) who abuses his sweet, simple-minded assistant (Jamel Debbouze). It’s really a film about perfection, a fantasy about how a messy world can, through force of will and timing and deftness of touch, be harmonized down to the second. There’s a mechanical quality to the film that’s completely at odds with the spontaneity and surprise of authentic passion. That “strange feeling of absolute harmony” is the metronomic ticking that Jeunet manufactures here – satisfying perhaps, but in no way romantic.

Yet 20 years later, Amélie does feel like an important shift in film-making style, a natural bookend to Moulin Rouge earlier in the year. The medium was entering an era of extreme plasticity, where the world could be bended and refined down to the pixel, and engineered to achieve moments of pristine, storyboarded flawlessness. There’s quite literally not a hair out of place in Amélie – Audrey Tautou’s immaculate bob is the greatest achievement in French hairdressing since Anna Karina’s bangs in Vivre Sa Vie – but the cold order of the film should not be mistaken for swooning romanticism.

Amélie also recalls a classic Onion headline that predates it by two years: Romantic-Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested. Among the details in the restraining order against this man is that he’d stalked a woman for two months, spied on her and tapped her phone, and “tricked her into boarding Caribbean-bound jets”. Amélie may have a more delicate touch and a timidness that relegates her to the sidelines of her own life, but the film celebrates a quirkiness that’s millimeters away from derangement, as she makes elaborate interventions on people’s lives and teases the man she desires with Rube Goldberg contraptions that don’t pay off until she’s ready.

To a degree, Jeunet’s Paris doesn’t need Amélie to syncopate to a pleasing rhythm, as he delights in the random, unrelated events around the fertilization that led to her birth nine months later. Raised as an only child whose sole friend is a “suicidal fish” that leaps out of its bowl, Amélie grows into a passive, self-effacing adult who comes to realize that she can shape the destinies of those around her without making herself visible. And so, she returns those childhood trinkets to the middle-aged man. And she persuades the hypochondriac cashier (Isabelle Nanty) at the cafe to take notice of the regular (Jeunet favorite Dominique Pinon) who always sits across from her station. And she honors her father’s dreams of world travel by stealing his garden gnome and having a flight attendant send back Polaroids of the gnome at various landmarks. And she gets a key to the mean grocer’s apartment and messes with his head by switching his toothpaste with foot cream or swapping out his slippers for a pair a few sizes too small.

And on and on and on. Amélie inevitably takes an interest in arranging happiness for herself when she spots a handsome young man named Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), who has made a hobby out of collecting discarded shots from under photo booth machines. Their courtship is all gestures and delayed gratification, all so beautifully staged that the audience is never invited to imagine what a real relationship between the two of them might be like. It is the ultimate romantic comedy in that respect, imagining nothing worse than a series of contrived obstacles keeping two people from a future of uncomplicated bliss.

It’s an extremely seductive fantasy for many, buoyed by the undeniable brio of Jeunet’s film-making. The difference is that Jeunet’s previous fantasies with co-director Marc Caro, the 1991 black comedy Delicatessen and the surrealist 1995 science-fiction City of Lost Children, have a much darker tone to bring them back down to earth. There’s no doubt that Jeunet succeeds in turning this hidden corner of Montmartre, relegated mostly to the denizens of an apartment building and a cafe, into a community of oddballs bound closely together by dazzling orchestration. The experience intends to be a sustained magic act, but it’s more often sickly sweet.

As Amélie, Tautou does well to suggest the loneliness and fear at the core of her character while still inviting the audience to play co-conspirator to her behind-the-scenes machinations. But Jeunet doesn’t appreciate her human dimension, to say nothing of the other characters, who are defined by silly likes and dislikes and weird patterns of behavior, but feel similarly trapped in his grand design. It’s hard not to feel manipulated by Jeunet in the same elfin way his heroine intervenes in people’s lives. The intent may be benevolent, but you’re still getting jerked around.

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