Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, previously best-known for his collaborations with Marc Caro in Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Amélie exhibits the same brand of wicked humor and off-kilter humanism seen in those earlier films. Its plot revolves around its eponymous heroine (played by Audrey Tautou, channeling equal parts Audrey Hepburn and Olive Oyl), a wistful, lonely dreamer driven by her desire to help others. The product of an unhappy childhood -- mom was squashed by the suicide leap of a tourist from Quebec, dad was emotionally distant -- Amélie also craves love. In particular, she craves the love of Nino (director Mathieu Kassovitz), an equally wistful and completely adorable janitor/porn shop cashier she meets at a train station photo booth. Plot, however, tends to take back seat to style, which Jeunet layers on with the subtlety and glee of a drag queen who has just been given lipstick and a mascara wand. Through his eyes, Paris is less a city than an ongoing festival, resplendent with verdant vegetable stands, eccentric old artists, charming cafés, bubbling canals, endless blue skies, and -- as one sequence hilariously illustrates -- numerous couples who have no trouble attaining simultaneous orgasm. This vision raised the ire of a few French critics, who accused Jeunet of portraying Paris as little more than a close cousin to Euro Disney (where is Montmartre's graffiti? Where is its racial diversity?), peopled solely with the kind of cuddly if curmudgeonly characters found more typically in Tin Tin cartoons and Robert Doiseneau photographs. But such criticism misses the point. In Amélie, as in Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Jeunet has made a pure fantasy; its reality is that of a parallel universe, where perverse humor co-exists comfortably with genuine, if somewhat manic compassion. Whether he shows Amélie taking innocent pleasure in cracking the surface of a crème brulée or one of her co-workers engaging in a round of (literally) earth-shaking sex in a café bathroom, Jeunet portrays his characters with both loving self-indulgence and a keen appreciation for the absurd; he's aiming for light-hearted comedy, not kitchen sink realism. It is Jeunet's ability to temper his self-indulgence with absurdity that prevents Amélie from drowning in saccharine sentimentality. It is a "feel good" film, no doubt, but not the sort that people offer apologies for liking. Jeunet's energy, wit, and visual ingenuity are infectious. Even if we know that Montmartre is really strewn with trash and that Paris is often rainy and cold, it is hard not to be seduced by both Jeunet's vision of kind hearts, earthy humor, and fortuitous happenstance. Amélie was nothing less than a cinematic phenomenon in France, where it took in 40 million dollars, won an endorsement from President Jacques Chirac, and brought a new wave of tourists to Paris' Montmartre district, where its story is set.
by Rebecca Flint Marx review