She'll change your life.
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has a fiercely visual style exemplified in his films Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children (not to mention his sojourn into the Hollywood mainstream with Alien: Resurrection). Both of these grimy, kinetic, absurdist dystopian fantasies have resulted in constant comparison of Jeunet to American director Terry Gilliam (Brazil). It's important to understand, though, that whatever validity the comparisons have, Jeunet is far from derivative. He has a unique voice, one that pulls together seemingly contradictory sensibilities in fascinating ways.
Whatever darkness coats the surface of Jeunet's work (both Delicatessen and City present filthy, chaotic worlds peopled with grotesques; cannibalism has a central role in the former, while the latter involves the abduction of children for the power contained in their dreams), it's surprisingly void of cynicism. At its core, his work is amazingly earnest.
Amélie was the first film by Jeunet whose visual look and overall tone embraced that earnestness. In a sea change from his previous efforts, the world of the film is cleaner and brighter than reality (in the disc's commentary, Jeunet observers Paris is nothing like what you see in the movie, that "there's dog shit in the streets"). The film was a smash in France (where there was major backlash over the Cannes Film Festival's lack of enthusiasm for the movie), and warmly received in the States.
Facts of the Case
Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou, Happenstance) grew up in the countryside outside Paris, a lonely girl with a richly developed imagination. Working as a waitress in a Monmartre café staffed and frequented by dysfunctionals and failures (a jealous man, a writer who can't get published, a hypochondriac cigar stand matron, and an embittered former circus performer) Amélie's life changes on August 30, 1997 as a result of a series of events kicked off by the television broadcast announcement of the death of Princess Diana and ending in Amélie's discovery, in her apartment, of a box of someone's childhood keepsakes. When she tracks down the now middle-aged man to whom the mementos belong and sees his joy at her return of his childhood, she knows she's discovered her purpose in life and begins secretly conspiring to make the people around her happy.
During her adventures in philanthropy, she discovers another lonely soul, Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz, Birthday Girl), a young man who collects photographs of strangers discarded at public photo booths. In particular, his scrapbook is filled with pictures of a mysterious and dour man Amélie comes to believe is a ghost. Her fascination with Quincampoix blossoming into love, Amélie is paralyzed by her own self-doubt and unable to approach him directly.
When Amélie discovers the true identity of the mysterious photo booth man, it's the perfect excuse to meet Quincampoix face-to-face. But can she find the courage to conspire for her own happiness?
There's no better place to begin a discussion of Amélie than with Audrey Tautou. As the old saw goes, she is Amélie Poulain. Jeunet first considered Emily Watson (Red Dragon) for the role, but he was unable to cast her and lucked into the perfect actress. Tautou expresses equal parts imaginative intelligence and cloistered innocence, competing attributes of a character with an artist's eye, but paralyzed by shyness. Of note is Tautou's brilliant use of her eyes, which she employs like a silent film actress—along with her movements, posture, tilt of head—to express worlds of subtext. Despite Jeunet's visual wizardry, the film was destined to live or die on the performance and presence of its lead actress. With Tautou, it lives.
While Tautou is the anchor of the film, she's hardly all it has to offer. The other performances are excellent, with much life added by Jeunet regulars Dominique Pinon, Rufus, and Serge Merlin—who play Joseph, the hyper-jealous former lover of one of Amélie's coworkers, Amélie's father, and the Glass Man, her fragile-boned painter neighbor—as well as Yolande Moreau as Amélie's scorned and despondent concierge. As in Jeunet's previous films, the characters are grotesques, but they're grotesques who wear their hearts on their sleeves, and each of the performances elicit equal parts laughter and pity.
This is a big-hearted film, with a lot of emotional texture, but don't be fooled: it's not completely divorced from Jeunet's previous work. There's a skewed darkness beneath the surface that lends authenticity to its emotional landscape, preventing it from overreaching, slipping into saccharine manipulation. Its wit, cultural awareness, and willingness to look honestly into the eyes of human frailty and alienation means it earns whatever laughs or tears it elicits. It doesn't follow from the film's status as a smash success that Jeunet pandered in order to get there. Consider how Amélie, in an inversion of her typical modus operandi, tortures the mean-spirited grocer Collignon (Urbaine Cancelier) into personal epiphany with vicious (though funny) psychological pranks, or how her conspiring to unite Joseph with Georgette the cigarette counter girl fails to change his jealous nature, the true root of his isolation, or how Madeleine the concierge only finds happiness in a lie because, in the end, the cruelty of her husband is both unbearable and undeniable. As eye-popping and stylized as the world of the film looks, it also contains suffering and pain that feels true. That Jeunet was successful in delivering such depth without missing a comedic beat shows a mastery of form and function beyond that of his previous films: Amélie fires on all cylinders.
In order to achieve the hyper-stylized look of the film, it was digitally color-timed. The film was scanned into a computer, colors in every shot were carefully manipulated, then the altered movie was reprinted to film (an excellent featurette on the process can be seen on the disc of Joel and Ethan Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Amélie's color scheme is vivid to say the least, glowing in saturated reds and greens with accents of blue and yellow. It's beautifully executed and works hand-in-hand with plot and tone, putting us in a warm world when appropriate, then shifting to a cooler look as the emotional emphasis shifts. Jeunet and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (The Cat's Meow) used digital technology to underpin the film's visceral and emotional impact. The DVD presents their work beautifully in a 2.35:1 transfer that's been anamorphically enhanced, with little sign of edge enhancement, digital artifacts, or source flaws.
The disc has only one sound option, a Dolby Digital 5.1 track in French (no English dub, folks, but don't let that scare you away: embrace the subtitles!). Reduced to its essentials, Amélie may be a romantic comedy, but it's also a Jeunet film and the soundtrack is closer to Star Wars than it is to Sleepless in Seattle. Dialogue's always crystal clear, and the aural world of the film is richly detailed in ambient sound spread all around you and carefully mixed so that every element sits exactly where it should in the layered complexity. The disc has both English and Spanish subtitles that, annoyingly enough, aren't remote-accessible (a minor pet peeve).
Miramax has packaged Amélie in a two-disc set that pretty clearly became the blueprint (in terms of both extras and digipack package design) for their elaborate Collector's Editions of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. The set has a nice set of extras primarily focused on the film's production and subsequent success. They lack the film school depth of, say, a Criterion Collection treatment or the massive box set of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, but they still leave little room to complain.
The only supplements on disc one are two commentaries by Jeunet, one in English, the other in French. Since I don't speak French, I can only comment on the first. It's an anecdotal, screen-specific commentary whose greatest strength is Jeunet's personable presence and self-deprecating sense of humor. His love of the film and passion for cinema shine through. He even warns at the outset that, if you don't wish to deflate the film's poetry by having him reveal its narrative and technological construction, shut the commentary off now. His commentary style reminded me most of Cameron Crowe's (one of my favorite commentary talking heads): he shows the same enthusiasm for fine details and is great at pointing out the subtleties of everything from actors' performances to shot composition to minor continuity errors, and the overall vibe of the track is that he's on the couch beside you, chatting you up as the film proceeds.
Disc two, of course, is the main storehouse of supplements. First up is The Look of Amélie, a 13-minute examination of the film's visual style with Jeunet and Delbonnel discussing how they conceptualized and manufactured the world of the film.
Fantasies of Audrey Tautou is a two-minute outtake reel. She's cute even when she's screwing up…maybe cuter.
Next up are screen tests of Tautou, Urbaine Cancelier (the grocer), and Yolande Moreau (the concierge). In his commentary, Jeunet says he likes Moreau's performance in her screen test even better than her excellent work in the film. You can judge for yourself.
Q&A with Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a 25-minute presentation conducted at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles and is both informal and informative. As in the commentary, Jeunet's personality and sense of humor carry the day. Shorter and lighter on substance is Q&A with Director and Cast which is in French with English subtitles and features Jeunet, Tautou, Kassovitz, and Jamel Debbouze (who plays Lucien, the grocer's abused and slow-witted errand boy). The segment is mainly a lovefest focusing on the film as a French cultural phenomenon.
Storyboard Sequence is a flat, one-minute piece that presents a few shots from a funhouse sequence in the movie framed alongside Jeunet's detailed storyboards. Unlike similar features on other discs, it's not multi-angled, allowing you to toggle from scene, to storyboard, to a comparison of the two.
An Intimate Chat with Jean-Pierre Jeunet is 21 minutes long, in French with English subtitles, and is Jeunet sitting before a video camera and ruminating about the film's production, the controversy surrounding its being snubbed at Cannes, and its subsequent success.
"Home Movies": Inside the Making of Amélie is raw but cleverly edited video footage of behind the scenes stuff like Tautou getting her bob cut, or a plethora of people having their pictures taken in a photo booth for the construction of Quincampoix's found-photo scrapbook. It runs about the same length as The Look of Amélie.
The disc sports both the U.S. and French theatrical trailers, as well as seven U.S. television spots and five French. The Amélie Scrapbook has about 45 pictures organized into four different galleries. Topping things off are filmographies for Tautou, Kassovitz, and Jeunet.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film's American title is the only gripe I've got, a minor thing but worth noting. In its French release, it was called Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain or The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain, which is more poetic and better fits the look and vibe of the film. Amélie is a bit bland.
If you haven't seen Amélie yet, what are you waiting for?
Look at that face up there. Do you really think I could find her guilty?
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Scales of Justice
• Jean-Pierre Jeunet Commentary (English)
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