Making Mischief

In Amelie, isolated Audrey Tautou peeks out expectantly from her apartment window to the world in Paris below.

There’s a reason the 2001 romantic comedy Amelie is France’s highest grossing international hit. It’s absolutely the most charming, magical, feel-good film ever made — plus it’s so French you become convinced you’re at a Parisian sidewalk café watching the world go by instead of sitting in your neighborhood theater.

Director/co-writer Jean-Pierre Jeunet planned every single shot down to the smallest detail, making the film so real you’re heady from the sheer veracity of it. Some of the scenes must be autobiographical, such as when a little boy, finally victorious against schoolyard bullies, watches helplessly as all the marbles he’s won fall out of a pitiful hole in his pocket.

The distinct look of Amelie, even after 16 years, remains unique in film history. There’s nothing subtle or sophisticated about it — Amelie is overly bright, saturated, like an artist’s fever dream. Its palette is in eye-popping green and red and yellow, more vibrant Brazil than cool France. Though most of the action was filmed indoors, the exterior shots are so extraordinary, such as when Amelie is stone-skipping while sitting on a lock on the Canal Saint-Martin, and also traveling shots through the enormous Paris train station, that the film won numerous awards, including five Oscar nominations.

Amelie is remembered most keenly for the beguiling performance of its young star, 25-year-old Audrey Tautou, who turns 40 this month. A natural comic, Tautou brings good-natured mischief to her character, no matter how tragic the events she sometimes has to deal with. Her lovely, mobile face is steadfastly kind, something not always true in today’s comedians. [American audiences might recognize Tautou from her sober portrayal as Tom Hanks’ enigmatic partner in The Da Vinci Code, 2006.]

The madcap tale is set in hilly Montmartre, the historic Right Bank district in Paris where famous artists lived and worked. It’s 1997, the year Lady Di was killed in a tunnel in Paris. Twenty-three-year-old Amelie Poulain has left the country home of her strange, widowed father and become a waitress at the busy Two Windmills Café. (It took over a year for director Jeunet to convince the café owner to allow the film to be shot there, and now it is a famous tourist attraction.)

Amelie fits right in with the eccentrics who work there and the customers who make it their regular hangout. (Imagine Cheers with an oddball Gallic cast.) “You’ll find Mr. Right one day,” a patron tells Amelie. “All women want to sleep on a man’s shoulder.” She’s not convinced. So far sex has been a let-down — Amelie’s silent reaction to one such disappointment is one of the funniest scenes in the film. She is, however, intrigued by other people’s orgasms and derives great pleasure imagining them.

One night, behind a tile in her bathroom, she discovers a metal treasure box hidden there by a young boy almost 40 years ago. She sets out on a path to find this boy, now a middle-aged man, estranged from his daughter and grandson. She swears she will find the man and then, when she has redirected his life, will spend the rest of her life being a do-gooder. A worthy goal, we might agree, even if there’s no guarantee that good will always result from our well-intentioned interference.

Bumping into Amelie on her adventure are characters as slightly askew as she is — a brittle-boned artist who every year repaints Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, a Moroccan fruit vendor who loves endives, a hypochondriac cigarette seller, a blind beggar who plays a phonograph in the train station, a man who punches holes into his wife’s lilacs, a grieving widow who cherishes the photo of her philandering husband, and a roaming garden gnome who needs a good shellacking. People in Amelie’s world spy without apology, scurry from the truth, wallow in regret, and act like losers when they really want to be champions. Amelie, though, seems to imagine she is above such ordinary foibles.

Then she discovers a man her age who makes collages out of photos discarded from the train station’s photo booth. This is tall, shy, strange Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz). One day he drops his collage scrapbook — and shouldn’t Amelie now find a way to return it to him? She tracks him everywhere, getting to know him by what she observes. Does she dare meet him face to face?

Quick Take: A waitress takes a fantasy trip through Paris.
Players: Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz
Director/Co-Writer: Jean-Pierre Jeunet (A Very Long Engagement, 2004)
Rated R for sexual content (which goes by so quickly it’s funny)
Color and B&W, 2001, 122 minutes. In French with easy-to-read English subtitles
Showing at the Hendersonville Film Society, Sunday, August 13, at 2pm (located at Lake Pointe Landing behind Epic Cinemas).

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