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MRQE Top Critic

Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Amelie is a great movie. I’ve seen it three times now, four if you count watching the commentary track. I won’t say it’s still getting better each time. Maybe four times is enough. But it certainly withstands that many viewings.

Making Introductions

Look for it in the big green boxAmelie (Audrey Tautou) lives in an apartment in Montmarte. The world is her plaything, and her own internal sense of humor is fanciful and clever.

In a way Amelie is like Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (and in fact, Tautou looks like Audrey Hepburn in the occasional shot). Breakfast is a character study, told from a man’s point of view, about an impulsive, confident, enigmatic woman. Amelie contrasts nicely. It’s told from her own point of view, not a man’s. And where Holly is confident and outgoing, Amelie is introspective and creative, though no less enigmatic. She’s director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s modern-day Mona Lisa.

The first ten minutes packs introductions to all the characters (including some we won’t meet again for another hour) — it introduces their pets, their pet peeves and their secret pleasures. It also presents the entire childhood of the title character from conception to the modern day. It’s a delightfully exhausting exercise thanks to Jeunet’s depiction. The characters are shot, rapid-fire, with a wide angle lens, distorting the features of the quirky cast and playing tricks with the depth of field.

Plots and Skits

Plotwise, Amelie isn’t very coherent. Its two major stories are intercut and linked by recurring characters and settings. The coffee bar where Amelie works is frequented by strange and paranoid regulars. The painter who lives downstairs and the sad old maid who lives upstairs are always about. The one-armed simpleton who helps the grocer earns her sympathy while the grocer himself earns her creative scorn.

These characters tie the first half with the second half, which has to do with Amelie’s kindred spirit Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), a possible soul mate, whose obsession is collecting discarded pictures from passport photo booths.

An Exercise in Style

Jeunet’s visionary style is influenced by French comic book art: bright colors, dark contrast, and fanciful contraptions. The look has sort of a dusty 1950’s quaintness about it, but one modernized by brute force rather than by evolving design. The apartment building which Amelie calls home is a hundred years old, and nobody has changed the decor since 1957. Amelie, like the best of Jeunet’s other work, is an exercise in character and style, not storytelling.

Picture and Sound

Amelie has a look all its own. Jeunet talks about digitally timing the colors so that every color would be emphasized and saturated. Before the digital process, enhancing one color would come at the expense of another color, so what Jeunet does with the timing is to create an artificial world — something expressionistic rather than something natural.

On DVD, the color is adjusted again. Jeunet tells how the colors look different on a display screen than they did projected in a theater. He tells how, for example, the green is pushed in the subway in order to match what he tried to capture on film. His efforts really paid off, because Amelie looks beautiful on DVD.

The sound is encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. I confess that I didn’t notice the sound in particular, probably because the visuals were so engaging. If anything sticks out, it is the perfectly Parisian music that Jeunet chose for Amelie.

DVD Extras

The 2-DVD set from Miramax is packed with extras. There is a commentary track, four video interviews or Q&A sessions, a dozen trailers and/or TV spots, audition tapes, and several lesser features that will take you several sittings to finish.

The interviews are all interesting. The cinematographer talks about some of the more involved shots in Amelie that look effortless to the casual viewer. Jeunet talks about writing Amelie for Emily Watson, and about the real-life found-photo album, which he calls “a masterpiece.” But the interviews are also redundant. Much of what Jeunet says on the commentary track is covered again in the interviews and Q&A sessions. If you watch all the supplemental material, you might hear the same story four times.

Jeunet mentions (twice) that he hopes the audition footage will be included on the DVD, and indeed it is. The fact that he was excited about his audience seeing the audition tapes raised my hopes. And although they’re interesting, they’re too short to get anything but a taste of how the auditions went.

The DVD also includes about 8 U.S. television promos. After about three of them, they all started looking the same. The DVD didn’t really need every single promo made for the film. Then again, Jeunet says he will own this DVD and he himself wants to look back on Amelie in ten years, so if the DVDs are a little too information-packed, it’s probably at Jeunet’s request.

If I have a complaint about the extras on this DVD, it is that they are too talky. Most of the extras are interviews or commentary. There are some — but not as many — extras that have something to show as well as something to say.

Director’s Commentary

The commentary track with Jeunet is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, his open personality and charming accent make most of what he has to say interesting. Unfortunately, like too many other directors, he’ll say “I really love this scene” without offering an insight as to how it came about or why he loves it. In fact, toward the end of the commentary, Jeunet makes fun of his overuse of the phrase and starts doing it deliberately. Often he “loves” a scene that doesn’t particularly stand out or isn’t long enough to carry any weight in the movie.

But he does say some interesting things, in particular about Montmarte, the region of Paris in which Amelie was filmed and in which Jeunet himself lives. Much of Amelie was filmed on location in Montmarte, and visitors can — and do — go to these places and order the “baguette d’Amelie” or have a coffee in the Deux Moulin (he says they’ve raised their prices since the success of Amelie). You can buy asparagus from the grocer or a videotape from the neighborhood sex shop.

Jeunet gives away some of his secrets. He talks of his love for a short lens, of his different styles of direction depending on the actors, and on the ubiquitous use of digital effects from the obvious animated fantasy characters to the skipping stones that Tautou was unable to master herself.


If Jeunet is to be believed, the DVD of Amelie will be in his own collection. That may be the strongest recommendation of all. Maybe there are too many extras on this disc, but even if you buy it only for the movie, that is reason enough. I look forward to Jeunet’s next project and his next DVD.