Amélie Is the Tour de Force of Feel-Good Movies
By Robert Silva
Take a trip to the Paris of our dreams in this buoyant French comedy.
Feel-good movies have gotten a bad wrap. They're objects of contempt for cinephiles, who bristle at their cheap solutions to deep-seated life problems. But maybe that's just because the genre is hard to do well. Happiness is an art, we learn in the French comedy Amélie — a lighter-than-air concoction that will soften the heart of even the most stone-cold cynic. It's styled with dazzling visual originality by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet who offers the Paris that's always lived in our imaginations — and a story that has the power to makes viewers feel that, still, there's hope for us all.
Amélie (Audrey Tautou) is a young Parisian woman who has withdrawn from life. Home-schooled as a child for a supposed coronary defect (her heart is fine), Amélie has grown to become an introverted café waitress, surrounded by oddball coworkers and bizarre clientele. Back at Amélie's apartment building things are no better, as one neighbor mourns the husband who left her decades before, and an elderly painter with a brittle bone disease repaints the same picture over and over.
Everyone's struggling and fragile, director Jeunet seems to be saying, and isn’t it interesting?
Amélie has the simple pleasure of watching the crowd, with the additional privilege of being able to enter the lives of these strangers. That comes courtesy of a narrator who gives the backstories on their neuroses in rapid-fire montages. None of their distress is lost on Amélie who keeps others at a distance, but who sees everything. A brush with fate inspires the shy café girl to carry out a vast and complicated conspiracy: She's going to make those around her happy.
Amélie's interventions are charming, mysterious, inventive and outlandish. Her father, who seems resigned to a life of quiet desperation, one day discovers his garden gnome has gone missing. He then starts receiving Polaroids of said garden gnome, from exotic locales around the world. He shakes his head in befuddlement (he always wanted to travel) while Amélie smiles to herself, planning her next act of sweet subterfuge.
Watching Amélie, and enjoying it, means letting down your guard and engaging your inner softy. Admittedly, it’s easier to do in a movie than life. Indeed, our heroine visits a movie theater where her favorite thing to do isn't to watch the movie itself, but the people enjoying it. The camera does a 180-degree turn, to see them smiling, in a dreamlike state, a sight trumping anything on the screen. Amélie and Amelie know their job is to put their audience in that kind of spell.
It certainly helps that the movie is set in Paris, a place that lives, for most of the Earth's population, in the imagination. Shots of the Eiffel Tower aren't stamped across Amélie, set in hilltop Montmartre, but the comedy is firmly rooted in the principle of joi de vivre, of savoring the small pleasures of life. Apartments and restaurants are a world unto themselves, rivaling museums and cathedrals. These are the places where life happens, and fans of Wes Anderson will admire the meticulously constructed interior spaces, each object a quirky clue to character.
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet made a splash with his cannibalism comedy Delicatessen, and he favors extreme, wide-angle close-ups — sometimes it's almost as if the actors are touching the camera and making eye contact. In Amélie, you get the sense he doesn't want there to be any distance between the characters and the audience.
Overcoming distance is also the challenge for the film's heroine. Amélie's lifelong shyness, the audience realizes, is the barrier to her finding her own happiness.
The biggest prejudice against feel-good movies is that they're full of cliches. Cheap optimism is, indeed, easy to come by: Don't sweat the small stuff. Happiness is a journey, not a destination. Cynicism has its own cliches: Hell is other people. Every person dies alone. Amélie, who loves people so much it sort of scares her, knows true joy is a rare and simple thing. It's hard to come by alone.