If there is one sure bet for a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination for 2001, it would have to be "Amelie (Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain)". Since its release in its native France in April, this wondrous and whimsical cinematic confection has won audience awards at various film festivals around the world, including the recent Toronto International Film Festival. Now, with its limited release on North American screens, moviegoers can experience this immensely-satisfying and eclectic modern-day fairy tale.
The "Amelie" in question is Amelie Poulain (Audrey Tatou), a lonely young woman who works as a waitress in a Parisian cafe. Since childhood, Amelie has lived an isolated existence, having been brought up by her emotionally-cold father and deranged mother. Because of Amelie's overprotective parents, which had her schooled at home and forbade her from having friends, young Amelie retreated into her own imagination, which is where she still mostly resides today. Thus, despite having moved to the big city, Amelie finds that her life is still much the same, a loveless and aimless existence.
However, all this changes when she hears of the untimely death of Princess Diana, which triggers a chain reaction of events that lead her to discovering a box of old childhood trinkets hidden in the wall of her bathroom. Amelie then sets out to return these lost 'treasures' to its owner (Maurice Bénichot), which she does, a selfless act that brings both the owner and Amelie much joy. She is then galvanized into helping everyone around her find happiness, a decision that ultimately leads Amelie into finding her own, as she crosses paths with Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz of "Jakob the Liar"), another eccentric individual who may very well be her match.
What is most interesting about Amelie's character is how she goes about helping the people around her. Instead of directly approaching them, Amelie prefers to hide both her identity and intentions. She does this by creating elaborate 'strategems' that achieve the end result without anyone being aware of what she has done. For example, when she returns the box of childhood treasures to its owner, she lures him by placing a call to the pay phone where she has placed the box, and then follows him into a bar to gauge his reaction. Another scheme involves kidnapping her father's garden gnome and sending snapshots of it in front of famous landmarks around the world, which eventually convinces him into taking a long-delayed vacation. In devising such Rube Goldbergian schemes, Amelie avoids direct contact and emotional involvement with the people she helps, thereby minimizing the potential for disappointment or the impact of failure. Unfortunately, this modus operandi also becomes an almost insurmountable obstacle when it comes to finding her own happiness, as it prevents Amelie from even holding a simple conversation with Nino.
In many respects, "Amelie" is reminiscent of the second-half of Wong Kar-wai's 1994 film "Chungking Express (Chongqing senlin)", in which a quirky countergirl (Faye Wong) at a fast food restaurant secretly pursues a police officer (Tony Leung) she fancies. The character of Amelie shares much of the happy-go-lucky mischievousness of Faye Wong's character, as well as the fear of intimacy, which is also a dominant theme in "Chungking Express". Astute filmgoers will also appreciate how Amelie exacts revenge on the bully-like manager at the local grocery store by breaking into his apartment and rearranging things, calling to mind how Faye Wong slips into Tony Leung's apartment to rearrange his life for the better.
Another noticeable aspect of "Amelie" is the distinct visual style of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Jeunet's previous forays into filmmaking have included the visually-arresting yet narratively-obtuse "Delicatessen" and "The City of Lost Children (La Cité des enfants perdus)", as well as the disappointing "Alien: Resurrection". Jeunet brings the same style to "Amelie", spicing things up with odd inserts (particularly for the 'likes and dislikes' of the characters) and through the use of magic realism to bring Amelie's overactive imagination to life (such as when she imagines how many simultaneous orgasms are occurring in a given moment, or how she imagines herself as Zorro in defending the downtrodden). Jeunet also presents Paris through colored filters and odd camera angles, creating a city of surreal wonders, where anything can (and does) happen. Thankfully, Jeunet reins in his penchant for the obscure and the fantastic just enough to give "Amelie" its rambunctious energy, without overwhelming the story or its characters.
As the titular character, Tautou is the glue that holds the film together. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to the late Audrey Hepburn ("Breakfast at Tiffany's"), Tautou embodies everything that Amelie is (fun-loving, imaginative, shy, and always with that mischievous grin on her face), and it doesn't take long for the audience to fall in love with her. Complimenting Tautou in her dazzling performance is Kassovitz, who credibly handles the transformation of Nino from a very eccentric collector to someone confident enough to take chance on someone as strange as Amelie. Rounding out the cast are a number of strong supporting turns from Rufus ("City of Lost Children") as Amelie's father, Jeunet-regular Dominique Pinion ("Alien: Resurrection") as a cranky customer where Amelie works, and Serge Merlin as a shut-in painter who becomes a catalyst for Amelie's maturation.
As Christmas approaches and Hollywood preps its Oscar hopefuls, I doubt you will find a more entertaining or uplifting film as "Amelie" during the holiday moviegoing season. Last year, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was THE foreign film to watch, winning audiences around the world with its unbeatable combination of striking visuals and heartfelt storytelling. This year, it seems the torch has been passed to "Amelie", which has already become number 31 in the top 250 films on the Internet Movie Database ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is at 23). As word spreads about this unforgettable film, there is no doubt that "Amelie" will continue to climb the charts... and find a permanent place in the hearts of moviegoers everywhere.