Sunday, July 13, 2008
Amélie -- Creative do-gooding
The full title of this quirky French comedy is "Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain," or "The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain," but to its almost cultic followers it is simply Amélie. Narrated throughout with dry humor, it tells the story of Amélie Poulain, a lonely young woman who is searching for love but doesn't know it.
Amélie begins by showing and telling her life as a small girl. When her father, a doctor, incorrectly diagnoses a heart defect, she is doomed to life as a home-schooler. (For the record: I home-school my children, and it is a very positive experience, not an anti-social endeavor.) Her only friend is Blubber, her suicidal pet goldfish who jumps out of his bowl. When her mother is killed, ironically by a suicidal woman leaping from the top of a cathedral, Amélie is left alone with her cold-fish of a father.
Her childhood sets the stage for her adult life, which is the crux of the movie. Living in an older Paris apartment, Amélie continues to live in her imagination, seeing herself in news reels. As the narrator says, "The last thing Amelie wants is a reality check." Her imagination combines with fantasy elements (talking photos and paintings, Amélie talking to the camera) and curious storylines (photobooths, traveling gnomes) to make this an interesting, often very funny movie.
The old joke, what is black and white and red all over (answer -- the newspaper), could be modified to work in Amélie. What is green and yellow and red all through? Answer -- Amélie. These main colors, inspired by the paintings of the Brazilian artist Juarez Machado, occur frequently together in Amélie, and add to its stylism, reminding us that it is a blend of imaginative fantasy with realism: magical realism. Also blue, a contrasting color, is used to highlight important scenes or characters, and thereby artistically contributes to the development of the plot. (Watch for blue objects as plot trigger-points.)
When Amélie finds an old toy box tin dating back to World War 2 inside the wall of her old French apartment, she begins the journey of her life. Discovering a name inside (Dominique Bretodeau), she sets out on a quest to find its owner and return it. Through some adventures, she finally succeeds and anonymously delivers it to him. In so doing, he is brought to tears, tears of joy. This unexpected gift causes him to reflect on his broken relationship with his own daughter and initiates a change. Witnessing this transformation,"a surge of love, an urge to help mankind overcomes her." Thus is born her life's mission: to do good to others secretly, even executing her own form of justice where she feels it is needed.
With three main storylines that interlock, Amélie keeps the viewer engaged. First, there are the idiosyncratic co-workers at the cafe where she works. Amélie tries to play matchmaker there, to bring love where jealousy exists. Of course, playing the part of Eros is tough, and can fail.
Then there is the green-grocer, M. Collignon, who helped her track down the owner of the toy box. He is scathing in his mocking of his employee, Lucien, a slightly retarded young man with a big heart. Amélie devises a way to give Collignon justice. When he gets his come-uppance through undersized slippers, dimmed lights and spiked sherry, it is hilarious.
Finally, there is the collector, Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz). At this point, he collects torn-up photos from photobooths and reconstructs them to paste them into an album. Quirky, yes; bizarre, maybe. When Nino's album falls in Amélie's hands, she discovers in the album, multiple photos of an unknown bald-headed man who frequents the booths across Paris on a regular basis, a mystery indeed.
A key character in Amélie is the Glass Man, Raymond Dufayel (Serge Merlin), who lives in her building. His bones are so brittle he does not leave his apartment, but spends every day copying the same classic Renoir painting, a new copy year after year. Watching each other via small telescopes, they become friends. And he is a foil to Amélie. Where she lives out in the world, helping people, he is trapped by his condition in his apartment but helps both Lucien and Amélie to see the world. Even as Amélie is living in the world, she is really hiding from it. Her secret do-gooding is a way for her to remain behind the scenes.
As the storylines converge to confluence, Amélie leads Nino on a secret and surprise trail. As she does so she comes to realize she loves him. But only after a pep talk from Raymond can she summon the courage to finally emerge from her self-imposed glass prison: "So, my little Amélie, you don't have bones of glass. You can take life's knocks. If you let this chance pass, eventually, your heart will become as dry and brittle as my skeleton. So, go get him, for Pete's sake!"
Audrey Tautou instills in Amélie a sense of innocence, even naivete, while being a sweet and smart manipulator of events and schemes. She is picture perfect as the the thin young Parisian. With a bob-cut do, her big eyes and pert nose, she is pixie-like as Amélie. To think that this role was originally meant for Emily Watson is almost unthinkable. This is Tautou's defining character.
Apart from some unneccesary sex scenes that don't add to the narrative but give it an R-rating, this is a family-friendly film. But these scenes will deter parents from letting younger children see Amélie. Perhaps the sub-titles would themselves function in this way.
Amélie reminds us that one person can change another person's life forever. Just as Amélie changed Domique Bretodeau's life forever, giving him the impetus to finally reconcile with his loved ones, so when we touch another's life, secretly or directly, we can make a difference.
Amélie shows us too that it is good, even satisfying and fulfilling, to help others. Whether it is giving money to a pan-handler, as she does regularly, helping a blind-man get to his destination, or secretly match-making, by doing-good for others we are actually doing good for ourselves. Biblically and ethically, we are called upon to help those around us. That is part of our mission. How are we doing?
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
at 7:00 AM