Amelie (2001)

Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

This is one of those movies I’m going to have to watch again. When so many people like something and you don’t, you need to take a second look to see if you’ve missed something essential.

As it is, I watched it last night and … nothing. I found it muddled and frothy (and not frothy in the good, whimsical sense). To use the analogy of correspondence, Amelie (Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain) seems more like an attractive postcard with the hastily written words, “Wish you were here,” scrawled on the back rather than a genuine letter.

It’s certainly a pretty picture. Director Jean-Perre Jeunet has created a gorgeous and detailed Parisian fantasy, rich with reds and greens and accented with some blues. All the characters are charming and delightfully quirky. And the character of Amelie (played by Audrey Tautou) is beautiful and engaging.

You would think it would make for a great movie. But somehow it doesn’t cohere. It seems to be a series of compelling elements that never quite come together to form a whole.

The problem may be twofold. I don’t think the script really enunciates the story line well enough. It is so taken by its own charm and eccentric characters that it loses direction. It likes the style of magic realism so much it loses focus. Cinematically, the movie is so caught up in the gloss and the style, it also loses purpose.

The second problem is not a fault of the film but of language. Because the film relies on a narrator, it’s very important. If your French is poor, or if you don’t speak it at all, and you have to rely on sub-titles, there is simply too much to read and not enough time to watch – a big handicap for any film. This is why I want to see the film a second time, without needing the sub-titles. I think it must work far better. This movie, more than others, is very dependent on its narration.

Overall then, with some qualifications, I’d say Amelie has the appearance of a certain kind of film, seems to be more than it is, and ultimately ends up not quite hitting the mark. In some ways, I feel about this movie the way I felt about Chocolat, another movie that I expected to like a lot more than I did. Both films are a type of story I love, essentially fairy tales, yet neither quite works. At least not for me. In both cases, I think the problem lies in the fact they want to be certain types of stories and thus focus on style as opposed to simply wanting to tell a story and let style take care of itself.

(As an interesting exercise, compare Amelie and Chocolat to Like Water for Chocolate (Como Agua Para Chocolate). The latter works, and very well, yet the other two don’t. At least not for me. Frankly, I’m not quite sure why. Maybe I’ll spend a weekend sometime watching all three to see if my feeling about the first two changes or, if not, why Like Water for Chocolate works while the other two fall short.)

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