Friday, September 2, 2016

To Amelie Poulain

by Cass Cannon
 A love letter to my favorite movie about love and loneliness.

I was a very impressionable kid. Leaving an air conditioned theater and stepping into the bright summer sun, I loved the feeling of wearing a movie character into the parking lot and taking parts of them home with me. From my gait, tone of voice, and things so specific as to how an actor chose to fold their socks, no part of my personality was safe from the call of whatever Silver Screen Siren was calling me. And there is no Siren as lovely or wonderful as Audrey Tautou in Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie.

Balancing an acute textural awareness with an illustrative flair, Jean Pierre Jeunet transforms common, borderline dystopic city scenes into rich narrative tapestries. He’s a director that cares for us deeply, making each scene more visually stunning than the last. In his parabolic world of verdant hues and a light fragrance of magic realism, we can let down our guard and soften our critical expectation to be entertained. It is in this cozy, vulnerable space that we meet the adorable Amelie Poulain. A keep-to-herself waitress living in Montmartre, Paris, Amelie has her scheduled life down to a T. When she isn’t visiting her emotionally absent father or listening to the colorful tales of her coworkers, she enjoys the simple pleasures in life (or what only the ever-romantic Parisians can consider “simple”): cracking the crust of a freshly fired creme brule, skipping stones, and slipping her slender fingers into large bags of grain. You know, the simple things.
At 9 years old, the age I was when Amelie was released, I could not yet understand that I was very much head over heels in love with Ms. Poulain. I only knew I wanted to be like her. At the time, my mom was finishing up a masters degree in French and while she graded papers, we would watch whatever euro-export made its way to her university’s library. Normally I was neither here nor there on her moody, subtitled movies, but Amelie was different. I think I watched that movie every day for at least a month. From the effortlessly lovely french bob to the delicate way she organized her perfume bottles (whilst wearing only a whisper of a silk slip, mind you), I knew that this woman was absolutely enchanting. With the same energy as classic beauties like Anna Karina, Audrey Hepburn, and that one french girl in my German class in high school, Audrey Tautou’s character is a delicate semaphore for all the complicated—potentially yucky—feelings one experiences when they have a crush.

Compensating for her own loneliness, Amelie discovers in a kid’s time capsule a motivation to do nothing but good to those around her. A seemingly basic desire at first, her dedication to doing the Right Thing evolves from reuniting a man with his childhood treasures to helping a house-bound man recapture his wonder and zeal for life. Through all these gestures of NiceWarmGoodness, Jeunet takes us on a voyeuristic tour of all of his characters’ lives, showcasing their intimate details and quirks. We want to look, especially as everything is shot so beautifully, but there is a looming sense of intrusion we’re left to deal with. Jeunet puts the small parts of his characters’ personalities at the forefront—the things we probably wouldn’t notice if this film weren’t such a simple, pure thought. We learn not by listening, but by watching; the way a cafe patron holds a glass, how a widow looks longingly at a portrait of her husband, the moment of eye contact before a kiss all work together, telling us everything we need to know and leave us wanting for nothing. It’s fucking magic.
Perhaps appealing to my unyielding middle child syndrome and an elementary school experience fraught with bullies, Amelie’s equal parts lack of social skills and deep desire to be loved had me relating to her all the more. The film, while being a quirky look into the lives of various Parisians, is also a journey of Amelie’s self-discovery. And not one that hangs its hat on some idealized suddenly-all-things-are-great-because-there-are-10-minutes-left-in-the-film self-realization moment, but one that focuses on the difficulty of claiming responsibility for your happiness. With the help of her super frail, super wise neighbor, Amelie realizes that she, too, is worth caring for. She’s worth being just as good to herself as she has been to those around her. And the moment that those gears start to turn, she ends up finding love. It’s a simple riff on an old idea: you can’t serve others from an empty plate. It’s not until Amelie understands that it’s not pure or great to martyr oneself for the sake of others that she can open herself up to the possibility of a partnership. Jeunet wraps what is normally a difficult life lesson in a brightly-colored package of childlike innocence and imagination. Instead of just showing a sad Amelie, she collapses to the ground in a literal puddle. Instead of telling us that she’s overthinking, using dreamlike vignettes, he playfully shows us her imagination running wild. It’s this two-sided humor that allows us to connect to the film emotionally leaving the experience a bundle of sobbing, raw nerves.
Light hearted and deliciously sweet, Amelie is a lovely petit fours of a film. Not toting much in the way of profound complexities, it serves as a sensitive and tender investigation in what it means to do good and what we sacrifice to better ourselves and the world around us. None of the content is necessarily new; we all want to be loved, from our misfit childhood days till the day we die...but the way that this insecurity is served up is darling and vulnerable that you can’t help but feel a little something for Amelie’s community. It’s a terrific, fresh spin on a feel-good movie that remains honest and believable, despite its more magic elements. Simply put, it’s a gem—a little timeless capsule I revisit every now and again, remembering how much I loved and cared about this film growing up.


  1. i really hope you've seen the previous work from Jeunet (i'm not talking about alien 4).

    the 2 movies he co-directed with Mard Caro are great. delicatessen and city of lost children (with ron perlman). while way bleaker than Amelie, they are an achievment in mood setting and set design.

    1. I'm a HUGE fan of both! City of Lost Children is my favorite movie of his. I like that in Amelie he preserves his more surreal/uncomfortable sensibility with a little bit of a Comfort Cushion.

      And again...*Audrey*