Having spent a largely lonely and unhappy childhood, Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) grows up with a strong sense of justice and a willingness to help others, qualities that are somewhat unique for a humble waitress at a Montmartre café. One day, a chance discovery inspires Amélie to dedicate her life towards bringing happiness to those less fortunate than she, while punishing those who deserve it. Her eccentric crusade brings her into contact with a young man named Nino Quincampoix (Matthieu Kassovitz), a similarly lovable oddball who works in a porno shop and collects discarded passport photographs as part of his own arcane quest. Amélie falls in love with Nino, but is too uncertain and insecure to approach him herself…
Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain - to give its full French title - was arguably the world-conquering French film phenomenon of the last decade. Much despised by a vocal minority of crotchety critics and unjustly overlooked come Oscar time in favour of the more political No Man’s Land (2001), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s vibrant and magical comedy was nevertheless largely well-received, immensely popular with audiences across the globe and looks more and more like a modern classic with each passing year. What some may cynically dismiss as sickly sweet is actually an ode to kindness, altruism and simple everyday joy.
Not since the days of Georges Méliès had a French film so delighted in visual trickery and yet the special effects deeply interwoven into the story’s subtext which asks us to take a second look at the world around us and all its wonders. It is a live action animated cartoon in which Jeunet utilises Bruno Delbonnel’s sumptuous photography and award-winning production design from Aline Bonetto to conjure a charmingly retro fantasy world. Drawn from fairytales and vintage pop culture, Amélie inhabits a world of talking animals, living objects worthy of Jean Cocteau and laugh-out-loud sight gags, but the visuals aren’t empty as most such fantasies, but rich in humanity.
As in his early short film Les Foutaises, Jeunet points to the little things, near-subconscious musings that reveal human nature: the tastiest parts of a chicken, a baby joyfully swimming underwater, a horse running in the Tour de France. He highlights the poetry in everyday strangeness, those seemingly simple, indefinable pleasures many of us fail to notice. Amélie and Nino are marked as kindred spirits, sharing the same fascination with such supposedly trivial yet actually life-affirming details.
More than just a sweet-natured love story, the film is an ode to community as Amélie’s misadventures help her learn a thing or two about her oddball neighbours, each of whom has a wistful tale to tell. Her acts of kindness are genuinely touching: she reunites dejected Monsieur Bretodeau (Maurice Bénichou) with his box of childhood treasures which moves him to tears, makes a blind man’s day by describing his surroundings in wondrous detail, and fakes a letter to Mrs. Wells (Yolande Moreau) from her long-lost sweetheart.
But the film belies its saccharine reputation with a kinky streak - including Amélie’s orgasm fantasy and a variation on the noisy sex gag from Delicatessen (1990) - and some delightfully twisted humour, notably our heroine’s inspired revenge upon the boorish Monsieur Collignon (Urbain Cancelier). It’s worth pointing out, not all of Amélie’s feel-good schemes go to plan. Her matchmaking efforts with Joseph (Jeunet’s regular star Dominique Pinon) and hypochondriac Georgette (Isabelle Nanty), only divert his paranoia and keep her miserable. You can’t win ’em all. Jeunet may have digitally removed most of the graffiti from Montmartre’s streets, but his is not a conservative, backward-looking vision as some claim, but an attempt to recreate the joie-de-vivre of the Belle Epoque in a contemporary setting. Although criticised for omitting its racially diverse community, Jeunet includes stand-up comedian Jamel Debbouze in a pivotal role as downtrodden but good-hearted grocery boy Lucien and firmly denounces bigoted bullies like Collignon.
Originally written with British actress Emily Watson in mind, whose French allegedly wasn’t up to scratch, Jeunet re-cast the film with pop star Audrey Tautou after seeing her face on billboards across Paris. It proved a star-making role for the angelically lovely Tautou who tempers her potentially goody two-shoes heroine with just the right amount of deliciously perverse mischief and heart-breaking vulnerability. She is perfectly matched by an endearingly boyish Matthieu Kassovitz while a strong supporting cast each enjoy their moment in the spotlight. Features a beautiful score by Yann Tiersen and a priceless gag with a globe-trotting gnome that inspired a spate of real-life imitators.