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Rules of the gamine

It is the biggest-grossing French film ever, in fact, surpassing the likes of Cyrano de Bergerac and Jean de Florette. And Amélie is indeed delightful. It seems to have pleasantly surprised filmgoers with its sweetness and gentleness, which are perhaps qualities not always associated with French movies. It has the kind of whimsical charm one identifies with, say, Maurice Chevalier, rather than the bewildering intellectual violence of a Jean-Luc Godard.

The movie’s full French title is more evocative than the truncation to which it has been subjected for the sake of the rest of the world, which would presumably have not been able to deal with something called The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulin. “Fabulous” describes the film’s slightly surreal quality, its fairytale air. “Destiny” hints at Amélie’s own progress in the context of her life, as well as having an ironic ring — after all, “destiny” is a rather overloaded and portentous word. Nations may still have destinies, but nowadays a destiny seems like too heavy a thing to hang around the neck of one individual.

The Amélie of the title, played by Audrey Tautou, is a gamine figure, something of a blessed innocent, a Candide with big dark eyes who works in a café in Paris. Café means a place where coffee, drinks, food and cigarettes are sold; do not confuse it with the South African sense of a café, redolent with overcooked frankfurters and wizened chips, though that would be a wonderful setting for a South African movie, wouldn’t it?

At any rate, we get an amusing potted biography of young Amélie, which goes some way towards explaining her nature. She has grown up “between a neurotic and an iceberg”, meaning her parents, and now does all she can to lighten the lives of those around her, using little “stratagems” of her own devising. She wants to be their hidden deus ex machina, and she’s rather good at it. She is a self-elected hand of fate, or rather a little finger of fate. But she is all the while neglecting her own well-being, and will have to devise some new and imaginative plots to achieve her own happiness; or perhaps she will have to stop plotting and submit to the aforementioned destiny.

Amélie gets going on her life-altering course when she discovers the forgotten treasures of someone’s childhood and decides to return them to him. That manoeuvre is successful, so she decides to take on the destinies of those around her. They include a neurotic co-worker; one of the café’s customers; an old man who lives in her building; her landlady; her own father, and so on. The episodic story follows Amélie as she tiptoes through their lives, tweaking them a bit here and there.

The movie is consistently amusing and charming, and part of its charm is its stylised look. Its settings are rendered beautifully but with vague artificiality. This is not surprising: in his earlier films, Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Jeunet made much of the mise en scène; so much so that you could almost call the mise en scène a leading character in the movie.

But it is also the comparison with Jeunet’s earlier movies that leaves one slightly dissatisfied with Amélie. (I am discounting his Hollywood sojourn, during which he directed Alien: Resurrection.) Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children are both remarkable, unusual films, carrying a strain of dark fantasy that is immensely compelling, in the way Terry Gilliam’s best movies are compelling — a seamless conjunction of the visual and narrative aspects of a strange and singular imagination. By contrast, the resolute brightness of Amélie somehow left me feeling as though something was missing. It just seems to get lighter and lighter, and thus less substantial, as it goes along. The chirpy optimism of Amélie herself begins to irk.

In fact, what happens to Amélie, the movie, is that it kind of normalises itself as it progresses. It starts out with quirky verve, with a host of piquant offbeat situations, and gradually turns into a romantic comedy of some kind, and one doesn’t really add much to the store of romantic comedy ideas that already abound in the cinema. The movie’s first two-thirds feel like something genuinely new, at least in their combination of plot and style, but the last third feels like it has been done before. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if one’s expectations hadn’t been raised by Jeunet’s track record —and indeed by the first two-thirds of the movie. Instead of building on the promise of its earlier parts and taking it further, into new, unexpected realms, Amélie kind of closes itself down and becomes conventional.

Many viewers may feel that this is in fact a good thing, that this is what they want — indeed, millions of them have already cast their vote for the kind of conclusion Amélie reaches. Clearly it worked for them. And, yes, in many, many ways Amélie pleases, and the couple of hours spent with it are not wasted. But I can’t help the feeling that somehow, somewhere, along the course of its narrative, the movie loses its nerve. You might say it fails to fulfil what initially seems to be its fabulous destiny.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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