CHRIS REVIEWS: Amélie (dir. jean-pierre jeunet, 2001)

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"Some people imagine, as Amelie’s father did, that shy people are simply too weak-hearted. This film knows better. In order to be that afraid you must first be capable of a terrifying amount of love."


Amelie (Audrey Tautou) knows a great deal about the world but very little about how to live in it. Her favorite things include: skipping stones across the St. Martin canal, turning around at the cinema to look at the faces of the audience lit by the screen, and, while buying vegetables from the irascible grocer Collignon, secretly dipping her fingers ever so slowly into his plump bags of legumes. She lives alone with her cat and her dreams of pleasure in a small apartment in Paris. Her neighbors include a delicate old man she imagines to have bones made of glass and a wailing woman lost still in her grief from a love lost long ago.

Amelie imagines herself to have a weak heart because this is what her father believed to be true. Her parents homeschooled her as a result of this misdiagnosis. Alone as a child, Amelie learned how to entertain herself. Perhaps this is why she is too shy to interact much with her neighbors or her coworkers at the Café des Deux Moulins. Perhaps this is why the world comes to life for her in the way that it does. Some people imagine, as Amelie’s father did, that shy people are simply too weak-hearted. This film knows better. In order to be that afraid you must first be capable of a terrifying amount of love.

For much of the beginning of the film, we follow Amelie as she wanders the world collecting beautiful details and a pocketful of stones. We suspect that she longs to skip across the world in the same manner as those stones will one day skip across the water—keeping her distance and her touch light, trying as much as possible, and for as long as possible, to never sink too deep. But then, on the night of Princess Diana’s death, Amelie discovers a small tin of toys hidden behind a brick in her bathroom. She decides to return this tin to its former owner. She promises herself that if it makes the owner happy she will dedicate her life to doing good deeds. To being, as it were, a kind of guardian angel. Why does she do it? We don’t know, and we never really find out, but I suspect the film wants us to imagine that seeing the death of Diana somehow shocked Amelie into a recognition of life passing her by.

Amelie’s mission leads her into interacting with the glass man and the wailing woman and the irascible grocer, Collignon. She discovers the former tenant’s name, Bretodeau, and she then endeavors, in as mysterious a manner as possible, to return the box of toys to him. She succeeds, and in this success, she begins her life of do-gooding. She attempts to play matchmaker among certain of the personages at her café. She visits with the glass man and talks with him about his painting—every year he paints the same picture, a copy of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party--and he tells her of his particular troubles in capturing the facial expression of the girl at its center, one who seems to be in the middle of it all and yet outside of everything. She tortures the irascible grocer Collignon, through careful rearrangements of certain features of his home, in order to punish him for his cruelty toward one of his employees. Later, the glass man points out to her that she is a coward. Amelie disagrees, retreating to her room.

When Amelie opened in 2001, it contained everything I ever wanted in a film, but which, at the time, I would never have been able to articulate. A very particular color palette. Elaborate camera movements. Excessive whimsy. A rich texture of dreams and nostalgia and a sadness not altogether different from happiness. A beautiful girl in love with, and terribly afraid of, the world. It caused a sensation in France, and then the world. People fell in love with Audrey Tautou. They fell in love with a Paris as romantic as the one in their dreams. And that is the key to the thing, of course. Jeunet paints here with his particular color palette of golds and greens and reds and the very occasional blue in order to separate us from the world, much in the same way he uses those elaborate camera moments to mirror the elaborate stratagems that Amelie eventually employs as a means of interacting with the world at a safe distance. Everything is beautiful, but very little of it is real. This is not because the world that we see doesn’t exist, but because, for the most part, the world that we see is the world as Amelie imagines it.

Two of my favorite things about this film are:

  1. A shot of Amelie skipping stones along the canal. The camera begins behind her and then loops over and around her so that we fall along the line of a skipping stone. It is one of my favorite shots in all of film.
  2. The way Jeunet constructs things so that we understand however much joy Amelie’s fancies bring to her, and to us, they also function as a kind of prison from which there seems to be no escape. After retreating from the glass man naming her as a coward, Amelie watches an old speech of Stalin’s on television. I don’t know if this the kind of thing one expects to find on Parisian TV, but there it is. Amelie imagines Stalin railing at the glass man and the world. She can do what she wants! If she wants to be alone, then she can be alone! Funny how many of our dreams turn out to be tyrants.

The truth is that Amelie imagines herself to be like the glass man, but she is not. After he learns of her love for the boy Nino, he tells her. “The time has come for you to take some real risks. You don't have bones of glass…If you let this chance pass, eventually, your heart will become as dry and brittle as my skeleton. So, go get him, for Pete's sake!”

This is what I needed to hear as a twenty-year old. I still need it. I imagine that we all do. For all of the many dreams us shy people dream, we often forget that our hearts are made of sterner stuff than we imagine.