Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain)
Though he didn't make a whole lot of films, it is hard to say which is Jean-Pierre Jeunet's best film: both of his masterpieces "Amelie Poulain" and "The City of lost children" have a positive, eccentric weirdness, unlimited originality, richness with ideas that could fill up several average films, in short, an unique sensibility; but they're two different, incomparable words: "Amelie" cheerful, personal and full of love; "The City" dark, bizarre, so twisted that even story structure seems to be testing our guts. Perhaps, for it's complexity, "city" wins for me, but it's "Amelie" that I can watch over and over. But recommending "The City" to a friend who liked "Amelie" has often proven to be a disaster.
How did it start? Very slow, Jeunet, amateur director executed many short films until he got courage to make his first feature. By then he assembled a group of standard collaborators of similar fondness for bizarre beauty, including scriptwriter Marc Caro, cast of actors with unusual screen appearances that became his trademark - the most prominent of which are Dominique Pinon and Jean-Claude Dreyfus, and some time later, a computer effects master Pitoff.
The first feature was "Delicatessen", a story of building tenants who make up for the lack of meat in historically undefined time of poverty by hiring a spare flat to a new tennant, then killing and finally eating him. Cartoonishly morbid, this film was like a test area for "The City of lost children", sharing it's dark tones and much simpler in story; it was a surprise hit in
One of reasons why I don't wanna talk about "The City of lost children" is that I don't think I'm fully able to describe it. Set in eerie, foggy port, film seems to float nearly above water; filled with bizarre characters of which the film villain isn't exactly the most terrifying one, "City" is a film that leads you through dark, moldy streets, then leaves you behind, and just when you start fearing that you're lost, it arrives from the opposite direction and grabs your sleeve asking "Where were you, I was looking for you!"
Internationally successful, "The City" granted Jeunet glance of a
Which is a task he should never have taken. With his taste for dark, directing "Alien" franchise was probably a challenge, but by that point, both the franchise and the premise were worn out, not to mention that third part was the planned as end of the trilogy as (duh!) the main character died at the end of it; And yet, on the other hand, fans kept expecting something that would level up with the best moments of franchise. Even though Jeunet brought his entire team from "The city of lost children" with him, results were disappointing and this is the most hated "alien" sequel, that is, if you were lucky enough to manage to erase the half-sequel "Alien vs. Predator" from memory.
That adapting to
After that flop, Jeunet decided to rather return to
It is interesting from conversations with various people about this film (and we talked a lot about this film) that what I mostly liked about this film were things that lots of people didn't consider, while parts that were favourite to people - like lists of likes and dislikes through which characters are introduced, or benign pranks that Amelie is making to torture the grocery store owner - were the ones I considered supplementary, kitschy notes without which the film would've worked just fine. The answer is, perhaps, that this film in such dense, layered Net of various ideas that it offered something for just about anybody - which is, perhaps, the reason of the wide success.
The film, as I said, starts by introducing characters by narrator, through naming their likes and dislikes. It is good idea to return to direct narration when you need to do it efficiently: "Brothers Karamazov" start with "Fyodor Karamazov was a man..." so why should there be anything wrong with it? That narration in "Amelie" is not all that conventional is a nice twist that makes start of the film just more interesting. There is, however, a stunningly beautiful shot in Amelie's "likes", where she is flipping the stones on the bridge over the channel. Camera catches her and her bridge from the back, standing on top, makes a half-circle rotating over her, until it finally stops in place where it's showing her from the front, just as the rock makes several leaps on the water surface. Jeunet's attention to details is such that we see Amelie picking flats rocks from the ground all the time during the film, and it's not a plot device, it's just poetry.
Jeunet has to introduce his characters quickly, as he always have unusually lot of them in stories that are all but simple d straightforward. In "Amelie" he introduces them with narration, in "The City" he was unexpectedly throwing them at viewer with not much explaining, which was, again, ok for that film. Here, Dominique Pinon is notable as Julien, jealous boyfriend of Amelie's co-worker. Amelie is, of course, played by Audrey Tautou, scarily wide-eyed, and it is no surprise that Jeunet had to have her in that role first time he saw her face on film posters. There are other notable performances, like Serge Merlin as the man with crumbly, fragile bones who never gets out of his house, Isabelle Nanty as Amelie's neurotic co-worker, Jamel Debbouze as simple grocery store worker who speaks with vegetables, and, of course, Mathew Kassovitz (otherwise highly uneven director) as Nino, Amelie's love interest.
Film bathes in contrasting colour: it is noted that every scene in the film contains something red and something green; these two contra ting, otherwise unfitting colours, are put together wit such consistency through the film, that they form a visual message of liberation and cheerfulness.
Amelie is an average girl who, in stroke of depression/wild imagination/depression, decides to help everyone he can from background, using witty little tricks. Her first good deed marks, perhaps, the most touchy scene of the film: she finds an old box with toys, hidden behind the wall in her apartment, and decides to return it to it's owner, even though he is an old man now. The box is left to be found by him in the phone booth. As the man finds the box, at first he’s cautious, then confused, finally his Childhood flashes through his mind and his hands start shaking, his breath betrays him, and he rushes to the nearest bar to get a drink. There, shaken up (and we are shaken up with him) he believes that he's seen a miracle; he remembers his grandson he is rarely seeing; in fact, looking back at his childhood, it seems not so long ago, and we don't need to hear from him "where has all this time gone?" to know that that's what he's thinking.
But we find out a thing or two about Amelie too. She is in that bar, nervous, actually scared, and when the man tries to talk to her, she is stiff from fear. There is a reason why she uses tricks, plots, and watches the consequences from the safe distance: extrovert and open to the world, she actually has no time to turn to her own feelings; or rather, she is scared by them, too shy to express them. She is, thus, too shy to share happiness and fear with that man.
This is shown better when Nino arrives, simple nice guy whose hobby is to collect pictures from photo automates that people have thrown away, not liking how they came out. Nino's life, just like anyone's in this little universe, is dictated by his eccentric quirks. Mystery of his life is why one single man throws away perfectly good photos all over the
But back to Amelie: being as she is, she can only communicate with Nino through her usual plots and tricks, from the safe distance. Nino's obsession from that moment becomes meeting her in person, which requires her growing up and, well, finding herself.
Don't be fooled by attractive visuals, this self-searching is the main theme of the film, It lifts the film to a level of psychological, personal story. To grow up means, perhaps, to give up on dreams that have been guiding her all through the film, but to stay the way she is means to hide behind the corners fur her on, to affect but not to communicate, to help but not to enjoy.
As if to confirm that, film gets more simple and personal near the end. One of the most moving scenes is a simple, with no special effects or complicated mise-en-scene: as Amelie missed Nino and is left with a feeling that she might never see him again, she returns home and prepares pie, she imagines her future life with Nino, she imagines him walking to buy flour and then returning, waving ribbon-curtain on the kitchen door; she is returned to reality by real waving of the curtain. But it's not Nino, it's just her cat.
Music plays substantial role in this film: lovely accordion waltzes by Yann Tiersen Thread all through the film. In the very last scene, where Amelie and Nino ride a motorcycle, picture is speeded up, contrasting slow waltz in the background. Instead of fitting the tempo of picture and music, Jeuned speeded up the picture and slowed down the music just enough to fit them into the same tact, again; it creates a peculiar effect that makes this film emotional playground all through the end.
"Amelie" was followed by "A very long engagement", a war story, again with Audrey Tautou; somewhat visually restrained compared to his old films but still worth seeing.