" I’ll be monitoring your frequency "
— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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If you don’t know who Jean-Pierre Jeunet is, get thee to the Video Station.

Most recently, Jeunet directed the last Alien movie, which might have been better received had it not been a round peg in a square hole. His short but brilliant feature film career began with Delicatessen, a black comedy set in a foggy, poverty-ridden future. From there, he graduated to The City of Lost Children, another dark comedy looking like it was made by a French Tim Burton (only better).

Making Introductions

Amelie prepares to break her creme bruleeJeunet’s fantastic imagination is projected onto the main character, Amelie (Audrey Tautou). She lives in an apartment building in Montmarte. The world is her plaything, and her own internal sense of humor is fanciful and clever, the same as Jeunet’s.

In a way Amelie is like Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (and in fact, Toutou 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 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

After the introductions, the movie starts off on the first of its “plots.” Amelie finds a hidden treasure in her apartment and decides to find its previous owner. Tracking him down leads her to meet all sorts of interesting people in all sorts of interesting places.

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. Amelie finds his scrapbook, and as in the first half, sets out to find its owner. Only this time, her interest is more than mere curiosity and adventure. This time she is in love.

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 and resistance to change rather than by intelligent organic design. For example, in The City of Lost Children, a vatted brain is kept alive, not in a sterile laboratory, but in an oak-trimmed aquarium with a speaking tube jutting out the front.

Amelie isn’t quite so far-out. Nevertheless, the most modern equipment you’ll see in this modern tale is a passport photo booth and a motor scooter. 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. And like the best of his other work, Amelie is lots of fun. Whether you’ve seen any of Jeunet’s other work or not, make him a lifelong study, beginning with Amelie, projected on a big screen.