Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Saturday, February 14, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Amelie (2001)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Starring: Audrey Tautou
Country: France

Amélie Poulin. The quirky girl to end all quirky girls. The dreamer. The romantic. The capturer of hearts the world over. Rarely is a character like Amélie the subject of a film; more often than not “Amélie” types - those women seemingly assembled out of whimsy whose surface masks just enough despair to allow the male hero to come to her rescue and “fix” her - are the objects, the love interests who help male protagonists realize their true potential. But this is her story, and that sense of agency that Amélie is afforded by the film has played no small role in ensuring that Amélie remains such a fresh and enduring piece of work. There have been imitators, but few films can match the effortless charm and beauty of Amélie.

In a star making performance, Audrey Tautou stars as Amélie, a waitress at a café whose isolated and sheltered childhood has left her shy and tentative when it comes to forging connections with others, though she is fascinated by the connections which form between the people around her and wishes to do good for others, even if only from afar. After happening upon a box hidden behind a brick in her apartment, she makes it her mission to locate the owner and return to him the treasures of his long ago childhood. The joy that she gets in anonymously reuniting the man with his possessions (and in doing so setting him on a path which will find him reconciling with his estranged child) prompts her to devote herself to helping others and eventually leads her into a quest to return a book of photographs to a man who collects the discarded pictures outside of photo booths. That man is Nino (Matthieu Kassovitz) who, like her, is introverted and fixated on his solitary hobby, though he’s more open to the world and people around him than Amélie. Slowly, Amélie begins to feel drawn to Nino, though every time she gets close to him, she quickly pulls away, afraid to open herself up to another person and risk being hurt. On the verge of losing her chance at happiness, it’s now someone else’s turn to quietly intervene in her life and set it on the necessary course.

As directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Amélie is an earnest film but edged with enough cheek that it never seems naively upbeat or too wide-eyed in its innocence. It unfolds in a jaunty, joyous fashion that makes it easy to engage with, matching its tone to the inherently positive attitude of its protagonist, who focuses only on the good in life, though she would have plenty of dark and depressing things to dwell on were she so inclined. In flashbacks we learn that her insulated childhood is the result of her father misunderstanding her reaction to one of the rare hugs he gives her, and that her mother’s sudden and gruesome death occurred with her standing right next to her. Whether Amélie has registered these events as the major tragedies that they really are is uncertain – the film plays the scenes in a way that is not quite for laughs but not entirely not for laughs – but, certainly, she hasn’t allowed them to define her outlook, even if they have had an undeniable impact on her psychologically. She can’t connect with people on a truly intimate level both because she has no experience with it, and because from an early age she learned that the people you love can become the people you’ve lost. Were it not for Amélie’s sweetness, and for the film’s gentle treatment of her, she might be a tragic character, but Amélie is not a film that wants to tell a story that focuses on why its protagonist is a little bit broken, but instead on how she gains the confidence to take the leap which allows her to finally become whole, and because we see the story through her eyes, the sadness that exists around the edges seems less significant than the joy at its core.

While Jeunet’s direction, marked by a playfulness that masks how firm and controlled it really is, ensures that Amélie falls on the palatable side of the division between sweet and saccharine, it is Tautou’s performance which makes the character so enduring and gives the film its heart. In her hands, Amélie is a person of simple pleasures who never seems stupid, and she manages to convey the character’s deeper anxieties without ever allowing them to overshadow the character herself. The performance is charming and graceful, as delightful after several viewings as it was after the first. Due in no small part to Tautou, Amélie was and remains a beautiful and engaging film, one which time has not diminished in the least.

1 comment:

Wendell Ottley said...

This is a movie I need to revisit. I saw it years ago as I was just coming out of my all "guy movie" phase on my way to becoming a well rounded view er. While I appreciated Tatou's performance, I didn't much care for the movie. I'm curious to see if I'll have the same reaction, now.