Amelie is so cute, so quirky, so ...
The word "irritating" comes to mind.
Watching Amelie, writer-director Jean Pierre Jeunet's over-winsome fable of a Parisian gamine whose life's work is to manipulate people into feeling happy, is akin to being force-fed sugary confections from a bottomless bowl. At first the idea seems just grand, but after a while, all you want to do is scream, "Enough!"
Which means, of course, that the movie starts off winningly. A narrator introduces us to Amelie's parents. We hear of their likes and dislikes and are given enough details about their lives to know that, yes, these are two quirky people. Not surprisingly, they give birth to a quirky daughter, who grows up to be a shy, daydreaming, big-eyed waitress in a Parisian cafe.
Amelie (Audrey Tautou) lives a fairly wallflower life until fate intervenes (watch enough French films, and you start thinking fate lives in a Parisian walk-up). Upon hearing of Princess Diana's death, the stunned Amelie drops a marble in her kitchen. The fateful rounder rolls to the wall and dislodges a loose baseboard panel, revealing a boxful of childhood trinkets apparently left behind by a previous resident.
Intrigued, she resolves to reunite box with owner. A little detective work and she does just that, but instead of simply handing the box over, she arranges for him to discover it unexpectedly. The look of joy on his face, combined with the way this simple discovery transforms his life, hooks her.
Thus does Amelie find her calling. Quietly and anonymously, she manipulates people's lives so that they get what she decides they deserve: a brittle-boned artist gains much-needed companionship, a haughty businessman gets his comeuppance, her dad finds the joy so long missing from his life.
Ah, but what of Amelie herself? Does she not deserve the same just due? Enter Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), a cashier at an adult video store whose hobby is collecting torn-up self-portraits outside a Parisian photo booth (how quirky!).
Why, it makes perfect sense that Amelie and Nino are meant for each other, doesn't it? (Just play along here.) But is Amelie ready to manipulate events such that her own happiness is ensured?
Like I said, enough already.
Tautou, in pale makeup and pixi-fied hair, is appealing enough as Amelie. Only Jeunet and cameraman Bruno Delbonnel aren't satisfied with enough; in trying to make her seem irresistible, they succeed in making her cloying.
Jeunet has a wonderful eye for detail, and his method of introducing characters by clueing us in to their idiosyncrasies and nuances is, indeed, endearing. But for such a whimsical film to work, there needs to be something substantial at its center, some grounded character or central conflict. All Amelie has is the lightest, most insubstantial of souffles. And who can stomach an entire meal of that?
Starring Audrey Tautou
Directed and co-written by Jean Pierre Jeunet
Rated R (language, sexual situations)
Released by Miramax
Running time 120 minutes
Sun score ** 1/2