Fresh from the Jean-Pierre Jeunet quirk factory comes Amélie, a self-indulgent Montmartre-set fairy tale that’s the cinematic equivalent of a dribbling lump of caramel taffy. France’s Titanic is now the Weinstein brothers’ wet dream—a speed-laden capsule they hope to peddle to a downtrodden movie-going public before pushing on Oscar’s voting bloc. Audrey Tautou’s is the journeywoman of the film’s title, a shameless urban cleanser who’s probably too naïve to even know what the word “irony” signifies. This is a chance fable of the Tykwer kind, where love survives (or comes to fruition) in spite of all the prickly ripples in time and oh-so-cutesy bouts of O-Henry coincidence. (Chaos theory is essentially sold to audiences as a fetish, most serendipitous in one Afghan-Russian dream flourish.) Amélie is just as sweet as a Starbucks Frappuccino but watch out: it’s also fattening and bound to lacerate your cerebral soft tissue.
Amélie’s atmospheric world is made unbearable by Jeunet’s aggressive style (somewhere Michael Bay is shuddering), with secondary characters introduced through nauseating zooms and accompanying God-like narration (they hate this, they like that, cue laughter). The glass man from across the way (think Unbreakable’s Sam Jackson—only with better hair) obsesses over Renoir’s impressionist landscapes while the local grocer verbally gnaws at his simpleton assistant. So colorful! She’s a sloppy humanist at first, all but giving a blind man a coronary via a rapid-fire jaunt down a Montmartre street. In one scene, the bored girl succeeds at reuniting a man with a childhood treasure, curing his broken heart and coming face-to-face with her convoluted sense of good-heartedness, and thanks to this closeted rapscallion, petty crimes give way to loveable character uplifts. Here, the meek inherit the earth—or something to that effect.
Amélie is a criminal. Watch out, she’ll break into your apartment and pour salt in your liquor! But wait, it’s all for the better good, because the local grocer eats humble pie and his simpleton assistant gains a few brain cells in her mischievous wake. Amélie is also a girl with a startling imagination, and her flights of ingenuity give way to some of the film’s more absurd comedic flourishes; snapshots seemingly mailed by a wayward garden gnome (situated before famous landmarks) are Amélie’s way of introducing her father to the joys of world travel. Very cute, but Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz) not so much. He works at a porn store but it wouldn’t come as a surprise if he were anatomically incorrect, and in his spare time he scours for discarded photo-booth pics. Obsessed with the photos of a sour-looking bald man, Nino assumes profundity is at play: Could the man be afraid of getting older, looking to leave a piece of himself behind wherever he goes? No, it’s not that deep, because if Jeunet’s visuals are all meat and potatoes, his narrative is all peas and carrots.
Because Amélie is a troublesome ingénue more successful at nursing the fragile souls of strangers than she is at tending to her sex drive, one wonders what she would do in the midst of a child rapist. (Maybe there’s a sequel in the works.) Predictably, she doesn’t practice what she preaches, so hold on to your seats when the film’s glass man—having effaced his fondness for Renoir—holds that proverbial mirror (here, a television set) up to the girl’s face. Silly goose, give way to love! France’s frothy fable may not have the sexiness of the equally mind-numbing Moulin Rouge—which also takes place in Montmartre, clearly the Ecstasy capital of the world—or the operatic pathos of Magnolia or Requiem for a Dream, but Jeunet at least admits to his speed junkiness. If it seems like Amélie is spun by a crazed circus master, take not that the orgiastic narrative takes place inside an actual carnival, but its some kind of weakness on Jeunet’s part that he can’t resist zooming into a vat of marshmallow molasses. Amélie is this year’s art-house eye candy—smug and self-infatuated, it’s definitely something to chew on, just bring a barf bag.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet may have a frightening obsession with all things artificial (we’ll get to that later) but there’s no mistaking the painstaking care that went into constructing some of the film’s images. Colors are impeccably saturated and blacks are rock-solid, and while some of the darker scenes are on the grainy side, the rest looks like marzipan. If at all possible, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is even more luxuriant: Dialogue is snappy and the sweeping score bounces in perfect harmony with Amélie’s energy.
There’s a wonderful moment in Amélie where Jeunet conveys the passage of time with a series of wipes over a stuffed bear sitting outside little Amélie’s home, but that Jeunet expresses (in his commentary track) mild indifference for the wondrous simplicity of this transitional device (he wishes that the intended digital effects had been up to par) is the first clue that the director may be more of a threat to filmic sense than George Lucas. During an exterior garden scene between Amélie and her gnome-loving father, he wonders creepily about the darkened clouds and gust of wind that conspired to decorate and light the background of his shot. (Of course, since Amélie is the director’s fourth film and the first to feature outdoor photography, it’s no surprise that he is so baffled by the whims of Mother Nature.) On "The Look of Amélie," cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel discusses his influences while Jeunet mentions how he’d rather modify reality because reality itself bores him. Next: The Q&A with Jeunet at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles and a Q&A with the cast and director may feel redundant after "An Intimate Chat with Jean-Pierre Jeunet," where the director talks about his enthusiasm for DVD commentary tracks, how they came up with the title for the film and how he wrote the film with Emily Watson in mind. Also included here is a cute blooper reel, a series of screen tests, a photo scrapbook featuring the garden gnome’s travels, a home-movie documentary, a series of self-portraits (altered, of course), trailers and French TV spots.
On the small screen, Amélie is somehow easier to swallow but her whimsy is no less poisonous.