Bienvenue, cinéphiles! Trent Film Society are enchantés to present the third film in our February series of quirky love stories: French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s breakthrough success, Le Fabuleux Destin de Amélie Poulain, better known by its short title, Amélie.
We at Trent Film Society are major fans of French cinema, and this perennial favourite among film fans serves as an excellent introduction to the cinema of that country, being both accessible and very enjoyable.
As well, it serves as a segue into a major theme of the second half of the winter term: foreign-language films ranging from countries as diverse as France, China and India. (I apologize if any of my gratuitous French is incorrect.)
After screening the transgender-themed love story Laurence Anyways (coincidentally, also a French-language film) and the BDSM-themed comedy-drama Secretary, it may seem that Amélie is a comparatively mainstream film; on the surface, it is about a straight white couple falling in love, with the only difference from every other mainstream romantic comedy being that it’s set in Paris, France.
We at TFS debated its inclusion in our winter schedule and concluded this is a film worth showing for the reasons mentioned above, and because it’s simply a lot of fun. But Amélie isn’t as conventional as it seems: it’s a great example of the genre called magical realism, which combines elements of the fantastical with everyday events.
This isn’t surprising because Jeunet’s breakthrough film, Delicatessen (1991) is a satirical love story set in a post-apocalyptic France where humans have resorted to cannibalism to survive. Fortunately, Amélie isn’t so dark in tone.
The plot is simple: Amélie (played by actor and model Audrey Tautou in her star-making role) is a lonely, painfully shy young woman living in the historic Montmartre neighbourhood of Paris, recognizable by the famous white Basilica of Sacré-Cœur.
Homeschooled by her parents who erroneously believe she has a heart condition, Amélie is left to be raised by her distant father when her neurotic mother is killed by a suicidal Québécoise tourist who jumps off the cathedral of Notre-Dame and lands on her.
Deeply affected by these childhood traumas, Amélie grows up to be socially awkward and largely friendless, albeit with a playful streak (as shown by various harmless pranks she plays on well-deserving people).
Amélie maintains a cheerful disposition, however, and is eternally optimistic, learning to cope with her isolation from other people by using her active imagination (her many surrealistic daydream sequences contribute to the idiosyncratic feel of the film.)
After being deeply affected by the death of Princess Diana, she stumbles across a small tin that once belonged to a young boy in a mouse-hole in her apartment. Resolving to return it to its owner, she decides that her newfound purpose in life will be to carry out good deeds and make other people happy.
The film has a colourful cast of supporting characters: the staff and patrons of the Café de Deux Moulins (“Two Windmills”) where Amélie works, the often mistreated grocer’s assistant Lucien and his overbearing boss, and an old artist named Raymond who lives in Amélie’s building, who she befriends.
Raymond, who suffers from a rare disease that makes his bones as brittle as glass, becomes something of a mentor to her in her quest to better the lives of everyone around her, helping her track down the owner of the tin and offering her advice on how to solve her problem of loneliness and unluckiness in the area of her love life.
Like Secretary, there is a decidedly lukewarm sex scene making it clear that Amélie has not enjoyed being with any of the lovers she’s had so far.
The film frequently makes use of elaborate montages to show flashbacks and insights into the lives of the people Amélie meets, adding more depth to her world.
Despite her efforts to make others happy, Amélie still lacks one thing in her life: someone to love herself who will make her happy.
Upon meeting the equally shy Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), she pursues love in her characteristically introverted way, with equally comical and touching results.
Amélie has been criticized as presenting a trope that has become something of a cliché in recent years: the so-called manic pixie dream girl, a beguiling woman who exists only to shake up the lives of other people (usually men).
However, Tautou is so perfectly suited for the role that’s easy to forget this and enjoy the film on its own terms. Jeunet’s saccharine portrayal of Paris has also been criticized as anachronistic, depicting an idealized Paris which is much happier (and much cleaner) than in reality.
Another valid criticism of the film is that it whitewashes modern France by largely excluding characters of colour when France has a large Middle-Eastern and African population.
Despite these valid criticisms, Amélie is still an enjoyable cinematic experience, a quintessential feel-good movie. (And who doesn’t need a little cheering up during the drab winter months?)
The score by French neoclassical musician Yann Tiersen has gained a cult following as well and is a standout element of the film. The film was nominated for several awards, including five Oscars.
Trent Film Society will be showing Amélie on February 17 at Market Hall, in French with English subtitles. Attendance in berets and striped shirts is strongly encouraged, as is the consumption of baguettes.
Please note that Amélie contains brief scenes of nudity and is not suitable for children. The running time is 122 minutes and as always, c’est gratuit.