Happily Ever After
This is the ninth post in my Blindspot review series. I will continue to publish one like it each month for the rest of 2015.
Amélie is a curious concoction. The world it depicts is bawdy and colorfully R-rated, and yet it has the feel of a children’s fairy tale. We get this impression thanks in large part to the titular heroine (Audrey Tautou), whose biggest flaw is her altruism: she so single-mindedly devotes herself to helping others that she forgets to help herself. This scenario recalls a very real-world problem – the compassionate busybody who burns out because she is constantly ignoring her own needs to meet the needs of others – but director Jean-Pierre Jeunet rephrases the issue in more fanciful terms. Instead of psychological health, the lack in Amélie’s life is in the shape of a prince charming, an elusive happily-ever-after.
In this setup, the film leaves little room for emotional complexity or, for that matter, darkness or malaise of any sort. Here is a movie that begins with a virtually unfaultable heroine and seldom gets any less cheery as it races along. There is something appealing about a film as idealistic as this one, so different is it from the gloominess of many of its genre counterparts. For a cinematic embodiment of joie de vivre, look no further than Amélie. That said, I myself am partial to stories that supplement light with shade, for the joy of life is strongest when seen against the trials and tragedies that shape it and deepen it (for a crash course on the importance of both rain and shine, see Inside Out). As such, I was entertained and even ravished by the artistry and energy of Amélie, but also struck by how hollow and lacking in urgency everything felt.
That said, the film’s aesthetic deserves mention. For in the end, Jeunet’s vision of Paris – which rivals Scorsese’s New York from After Hours in its loving, lopsided beauty – is the main takeaway from Amélie, regardless whether you buy into the film’s worldview. The movie’s visual tone can be described, I think, as a crossover between a circus and a nostalgia shop. Larger-than-life characters share screen space with Parisian boulevards, and the film’s bright, almost strident color palette is tempered to autumnal levels through slight desaturation, creating a faded glow that echoes of an old photograph. There are gonzo flourishes, as when characters’ movements suddenly fly into fast motion. This effect, garish though it may seem, also harks back to silent cinema, a medium with a deep French legacy. In this reference as well as the film’s musical theme – whose instrumentation ranges from accordion to piano to the tinny sounds of a record player – Amélie seems to function as a breezy tribute to French culture, past and present.
Returning to the film’s visuals, we see that – with the exception of a few, exhilarating crane shots whose panoramic virtuosity anticipates the camerawork in The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino’s love letter to Rome – much of Amélie tends to sustain a gaudy, theatrical tone. This is seen most clearly in Jeunet’s fondness for accenting already-dramatic facial expressions with close-ups (not unlike Rudolph Maté’s work in The Passion of Joan of Arc) and using vertical and horizontal tracking shots that seem to reduce the depth of the image. At times, Amélie gives the impression of being two-dimensional like a painting, or at least like a diorama rather than a lived-in world; in this, the film is not unlike a Wes Anderson picture.
The film’s resemblance to pre-cinematic art forms is reflected in the presence of various types of artists in the story. Among these are “The Glass Man” (Serge Merlin), an irascible but lovable old man who paints in watercolor; a street urchin named Nino who makes collages out of discarded photobooth Polaroids (Mathieu Kassovitz); and Amélie herself, who orchestrates schemes designed to make “art” out of people’s lives – namely, to bring happiness to the unhappy. Relentless happiness does not a great movie make. But to represent art as a vehicle for joy – and the film repeatedly reminds us, through having Amélie directly address the camera, that it itself is a work of art – is an endeavor worth celebrating.