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Review: Amilie

BY DANIEL BAIG | On Monday of this week Peter Bart, editor of Daily Variety, in his column in that publication added himself to the growing list of movieland pundits decrying what, in their opinion, has been a terrible year for film. To this sort of sentiment I can only shake my head in wonderment, because I cannot remember a year as rich in wonderful movies as this one. I won’t rehash my list of highlights-so-far here (if you’d like to check it out, though, just head on over to the Features section, and click on my review of Riding In Cars With Boys. It’s right there in the first paragraph.)

I will, though, say that so far this cinematic bounty shows no sign of letting up. Just yesterday I went to two screenings; both movies were really good, far surpassing my expectations. (Although to be accurate, one of them, Monsoon Wedding, won’t be released until the beginning of next year.)

And then there’s the movie this review is about. It’s original French title was Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (which, though I’m no French scholar, I’m guessing means The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain). Miramax, its American distributor, perhaps wisely, has shortened it to the petite Amélie.

Wait! Come back, those of you who started running just as soon as you saw the words "original French title." I would say, "Shame on you," but honestly, if you pass this movie up, the loss will be yours. And it’s a loss I’d only recommend to people who feel that they absolutely couldn’t use some extra sunshine and fun in their lives, because, at least for its running time, that’s what Amélie will bring you.

In my review of Monsters, Inc. last week I said that if you see only one movie this holiday season, it should be Monsters. Now, though, I’m kicking myself. Because what I REALLY should have said is, "If you see just TWO movies this holiday season, make them Monsters, Inc. and Amélie."

This is a sublime motion picture. It comes tantalizingly close to perfection. I won’t be stepping out on a limb at all to predict right now that Amélie will be ending up on an awful lot of critical Top Ten lists come the end of the year. And if those lists are ranked, it’s going to be very near, or at, the top of a significant number of them. I also wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a rare foreign language hit here on the scale of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life is Beautiful.

I can also guarantee that you’ve never seen anything quite like Amélie before. The only movies that I can think of to which it’s even close to being similar to are Magnolia — and I’m referring only to that movie’s bravura first few minutes —, and Fight Club. Don’t worry; Amélie’s not about bareknuckle boxing (or a Tom Cruise Oscar bid). Indeed, there’s no real violence in it. It resembles Fight Club only in the way it plays with the medium of film, and the possibilities that modern cinema technology offers, in new, fun, and exciting ways.

If you’ve read any of my reviews before, you know that I don’t like to spell out the plot of the movie I’m reviewing too much. I think trailers nowadays give away far too much plot as it is; why should critics make the situation worse? A critic who spends half his review detailing the plot is in my opinion both lazy and grossly inconsiderate. Filmmakers — at least, GOOD filmmakers — try to craft a movie as an organic whole. The ENTIRE movie should matter — beginning, middle, and end. If the audience already knows half the story before the film even begins, they’re missing out on what the moviemakers carefully planned for them: the step by step unveiling, in its proper way, of the story.

So I don’t want to tell you much about Amélie’s plot at all. But of course, before people (you) want to give up between five and ten of their (your) hard-earned dollars, they (you) want to know WHAT IT’S ABOUT, right?

Well, I can tell you it’s about a young woman in Paris who’s eccentric, to say the least, but also very bright, and almost magical in the way she changes the lives of others. I can tell you that at least partially — but only partially — it’s about coincidence. (Indeed, Amélie’s opening scenes, depicting amusing "coincidences" that go nowhere, seem almost to be making fun of Magnolia’s opening scenes. However, it turns out that coincidence does prove to be an important factor in Amélie’s life, and Amélie’s plot.) It’s also about playing Cupid, and being struck by his arrows as well. It’s about games, and an urban legend or two. And it’s also very much about movies, which it’s a giant love letter to.

The director and cowriter (with Guillaume Laurant) of Amélie is Jean Pierre Jeunet. You may have seen some of his previous films: Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, and Alien: Resurrection (the fourth one; yeah, the one with Winona Ryder). They would have given you an idea of his visual inventiveness and originality, and also of a rather dark, twisted sense of humor.

Amélie is bursting with originality and visual inventiveness, but this time the mood is bright, warm, and sunny. This is a Paris which always seems to have either blue skies or a golden glow, where there’s no traffic whatsoever, where there’s no graffiti, and where the sparkling Metro tunnels are adorned with some of the most gorgeous, colorful advertisements ever seen (and which actually don’t appear to be advertising anything at all).

And there’s a reason for all that. For while Amélie may not seem to be a special effects bonanza like, say, The One, looks can be deceiving. An extraordinary amount of the film was digitally altered after shooting to make everything beautiful. And a great deal of time and effort went into altering (cleaning up) locations before shooting commenced. The result makes for a city which is simultaneously familiar, and gloriously, deliriously impossible.

Modern visual FX are also utilized to create scenes which would otherwise be impossible, even though they don’t involve aliens or explosions. Early on in Amélie there is a moving and gorgeously, heartbreakingly shot sequence depicting a goldfish who doesn’t want to say goodbye. Goldfish being notoriously hard to train, you know this has to have been done (at least partially) with computers, but it sure doesn’t look like it.

As I said before in comparing Amélie to Fight Club, it revels in taking advantage of all the possibilities open to a filmmaker today. It features at times an endlessly moving camera, has scenes (a character’s thoughts, for example) playing within scenes, and frequently changes the type of film stock used. It utilizes old-fashioned techniques as well, like a narrator.

If you’re familiar with Jules et Jim, you will perhaps understand what I mean when I say that watching that amazing movie today is like getting a glimpse of an entirely new way of telling stories using the medium of film, but a way which was not ultimately taken up by many followers. It’s a fascinating detouring path off the main road, in other words, which never managed to become its own major artery.

Seeing Amélie partially gave me that Jules and Jim feeling again, of being witness to the birth a new style of movie, though not, to be sure, to the same degree. Amélie doesn’t signal as large a break in convention as that exemplar of the French New Wave did.

But by the same token, I also think it stands a much better chance than Jules and Jim did of actually being a SUCCESSFUL progenitor of a style which will consequently live on and eventually become mainstream.

At the center of all this brilliance is Audrey Tautou as the titular character. She’s perfectly cast, as are all the many other actors as well. Either during or shortly after (I can’t remember which) watching the movie, I was thinking to myself that I should use the phrase in my review "the new Audrey Hepburn." I thought I’d be clever and original. Well, first of all, upon reflection, it’s a totally useless thing to say. For one thing, why do we need a new Audrey Hepburn? Shouldn’t we be grateful enough that the world was blessed with the one we had? For another, I also have to wonder if the thought came to me because they both share the same first name.

And then it turns out I wouldn’t be clever or original in saying it anyway, as since then I’ve heard the phrase bandied about a lot in reference to Audrey Tautou.

But there is still a core truth to the idea. It’s not that she looks like Audrey Hepburn. But there is the same quality of waif-like, yet elegant, non-traditionally beautiful beauty.

I said before that I think Amélie is just about perfect. So I should mention the only things I can think to criticize. One, it does play a trifle long towards the end. It just begins to skirt with the area where a movie starts to wear out its welcome, but luckily ends before it really gets to that point. And the other comment refers to a scene which I will discuss in the very last part of my review. Here I will just ask, "Are there really no same-sex couples in all of Paris (in a movie in this day and age, and especially in a movie with such generosity of spirit)?"

I also want to mention three more things I think are great about Amélie: one, it features fantastic music, especially the piece played at the very end as the credits start to roll.

And the other two things are scenes. One is a sequence which, while having no nudity, or dialogue, or even really hardly any physical contact, is one of the most sensual and erotic — in a non-tawdry sense — scenes I’ve ever seen on a screen. Our heroine takes a ride on one of those little amusement park ghost rides. Our hero (though she doesn’t know it’s him, and he doesn’t know he’s the hero yet either) is employed there to add to the patrons’ "scary" experience. Dressed in a skeleton costume, he rides Amélie’s car for awhile with her, lightly blowing on her, making "Oooo-oooh" noises, brushing her hair. You can tell for both of them it’s an electric few moments (especially because both characters are painfully shy, and certainly wouldn’t be able to engage in this kind of behavior without benefit of a mask), as it is for us in the audience as well.

The other scene is the very end of the movie. It is outrageously romantic, and its imagery an unabashed cliché of European love story movies of decades past. And, audaciously, it works. It works so well tears will come out of your eyes or a grin will seize your face or you’ll blush with embarrassment and delight at being so shamelessly, brazenly, brilliantly manipulated. Or maybe all three, like happened to me.

Please go see this movie. The world needs more like it, and fast.

The MPAA ratings board, a group, I have become convinced, made up of people with severe psychological problems, has in its infinite wisdom (just to be clear, those last three words were meant to be extremely sarcastic) given Amélie an R rating.

Does it feature dozens of shooting deaths, or bloody mutilations, as does last week’s The One, which was given a PG-13, in effect saying it’s okay for kids?

Uh, no.

Does it feature a woman being beaten until she miscarries, as does another one of last week’s PG-13 movies, Domestic Disturbance?

Uh, no.

Does it feature Jack Valenti, the head of the MPAA, being beaten until he admits how not only ludicrous, but also sick, the ratings system has become?

Sadly, very sadly, no.

What it does feature is a brief sequence reminiscent of the most famous scene in When Harry Met Sally, magnified about tenfold.

In other words, there’s no nudity, or explicit sex. Just some noises.

But still, the MPAA has apparently decided the normal, real-life sounds of two happy people in love engaging in a normal, necessary-for-the-continuation-of-the-species activity, which doesn’t involve killing or maiming anyone, and which probably (hopefully) any young person in the audience will eventually experience for themselves, unlike (hopefully) the nasty activities on display in some of those PG-13 movies, is far worse for impressionable minds than extreme, explicit violence.

As I hinted at before, I believe most mental health experts would agree that an individual who is morbidly afraid and condemning of sex, while having no problem at all with bloodshed, death, and cruelty has a definite psychological problem.

I just wish somebody would get these MPAA committee members the medical attention they so obviously need!

(Submitted by Daniel Baig on 2001-11-09.)


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