“Amelie” is a sunshiny movie that makes sunshininess seem cool. It’s “Pollyanna,” but without the factor of making you want to smack the protagonist.
Amelie (Audrey Tautou) is a spunky Parisian who grew up lonely, thanks to being the only child of a mother who died young and a father who was frumpy at best. Now, at the age of 24, she lives not far from her aging father, working as a waitress in a cafe and letting life slip along idly.
Then, hearing the shocking news of Princess Diana’s death causes her to drop something on the floor, which causes her to stoop down and notice a loose tile in the wall of her bathroom, which causes her to find a cigar box behind it that contains some previous tenant’s childhood keepsakes. She seeks out the owner with this plan in mind: If the rediscovery of the box brings joy to the heart of the man, Amelie will devote her life to making people happy in a similar fashion. If it does not, she will forget the whole thing.
The man is indeed overjoyed to be reunited with his childhood, and so Amelie sets out to improve the lives of her fellow Frenchies. She narrates the world for a blind man, whimsically persuades her father to travel the world, slyly sets up a coworker with a customer.
Ah, yes. L’amour. What about Amelie herself? If she can overcome her shyness, she may find love with a stranger named Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), who may be as interested in the simple pleasures of life as she is. He works in a porn shop, but he also enjoys collecting people’s photo-booth throwaways into a collage of last-minute blinks and bad smiles. Like Amelie, Nino is interested not just in humanity, but in humans themselves.
The director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who co-conceived the story with screenwriter Guillaume Laurant), seems to share that trait with his characters. Much time is spent on listing the little things that make even minor characters happy; we learn, for example, that this person loves popping bubblewrap, that one likes the sound of the cat’s bowl on the kitchen tile, and this other one can’t get enough of seeing bullfighters gored on TV. Amelie, Nino and Jeunet all understand that the minutiae are what make us who we are. I suspect if any of them had an intimate conversation with, say, the Pope, they’d want to know less about his religious teachings and more about whether he likes the feeling of sticking his hand in a bag of grain or seeds.
Audrey Tautou couldn’t be more impish, beguiling and innocently coquettish if she were part fairy. No matter what else she does with her career, she will always be Amelie in the minds of millions.
Jeunet maintains a playful, optimistic tone, allowing some conflict to creep in only momentarily. When it does, it becomes clear just how much the movie’s whimsy has captured you, as you realize it’s impossible to feel any suspense. A movie like this can only end Happily Ever After. If the rules of storytelling dictate there must be a complication at some point, we’re willing to sit through it and root for the heroine, knowing full well she will emerge victorious.
A- (; )
In 2011, I reconsidered this movie for my "Re-Views" column at Film.com.