Written by: Michael Mackenzie on October 17th, 2005
Theatrical Release Dates: France, April 5th, 2001
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Writers: Guillaume Laurant, Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Cast: Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz, Rufus, Lorella Cravotta
DVD Released: April 15th, 2002
Approximate Running Time: 117 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 French
DVD Release: Momentum
Region Coding: Region 2 Pal
Retail Price: £19.99
Amélie, or to use its full title Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, is a modern-day fairytale from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, charting the story of an extremely oddball young woman in her quest to do good and give her life some purpose. Amélie stands out from the hordes of generic Hollywood movies not only by being uniquely French, but also due to the fact that, while so many filmmakers seem to be obsessed with over the top plots and epic storylines, Jeunet instead focuses on the mundane and makes it interesting by filtering everything through his unique visual eye. Amélie looks at the little things in life that most movies, and indeed most people, simply ignore and take for granted, and gives them greater significance by celebrating the ordinary. In a year characterized by much death and destruction, Amélie, which is romanticized escapist fluff, but unabashedly so, provided a welcome distraction from the horrors of the real world.
Jeunet is probably best-known for his co-directions with Marc Caro, including the dark gothic fantasies Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children. After the frustrating experience of working on Alien: Resurrection in the US, Jeunet returned to his native France to craft a film that would be everything Alien: Resurrection wasn’t, namely non-American and non-blockbuster. This is something of an irony, because Amélie, defying all expectations, was a massive hit in the US (it is virtually unheard-of for a subtitled foreign film to become a box office success in America).
Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) has had a rather sheltered upbringing. Not permitted to attend school, she created her own imaginary worlds and friends to compensate for her loneliness. At the age of seven, the untimely death of her mother essentially brought her emotional development to a halt, and as a result, the now 23-year-old Amélie, who now works at a café in the Parisian district of Montmartre, still views the world through the eyes of a child. One day, the unexpected discovery of a small box left in her apartment by a former inhabitant drives her to return it to its rightful owner, and as a result sets in motion a chain of events with Amélie becoming a self-appointed good samaritan, secretly fixing people’s problems for them. During one of her grand adventures, she comes across Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), a young man with an upbringing as troubled as hers. Nino collected discarded pictures from photo booths, and is obsessed with the image of a bald man, who constantly appears in photos from booths around the city, but whose identity is a mystery. Amélie falls for Nino, but is too shy to approach him, so she stalks him from a distance, trying to help find out the identity of the mysterious bald man and attempting to work up the courage to make contact with Nino at the same time. The only problem is, Nino is unaware of her very existence, let alone her desires.
Before I go any further I really should mention the film’s look – it’s frigging gorgeous. Every frame is filled with rich colours and artful compositions. The world in which Amélie lives is a very different one from our own, where there is no litter or graffiti in the streets and colours practically pop out of various inanimate objects. Jeunet used digital colour grading to achieve the rich visuals and added a green bias to most scenes, and while at times the saturation threatens to overwhelm, this simply adds to the feeling of make-believe propagated by the movie. It’s with films like these that I am incredibly grateful for the invention of RGB SCART, YUV component, VGA, DVI and their ilk for being able to accurately reproduce the eccentric colour palette without distortion or dot crawl. Until you’ve seen this film on a high quality display, you haven’t seen it at all.
The photography is, therefore, essentially a character in its own right, but even so, it wouldn’t be much to go on if not backed up by excellent performances from the cast. Audrey Tautou’s Amélie is truly captivating. She brings the character to life with her various quirks and oddities. Her face is as rubbery as Rowan Atkinson’s, although much more attractive, and she uses it to great advantage, perfectly conveying the character’s strangeness and quirky appeal. It would certainly have been interesting to see how Jeunet’s original choice of Emily Watson would have worked out (she backed out because she couldn’t get to grips with speaking French). Mathieu Kassovitz’s captures the idiosyncrasies and charm of Nino very well — he’s an interesting individual, one of the few people who is as prolific (at least in his native France) in front of the camera as he is behind it. The rest of the cast is comprised of various oddballs who all acquit themselves superbly, and are generally there to add colour and character to an already vibrant film.
The whole film is filled with surreal imagery, including a lengthy sequence in which Amélie dreams up an outlandish reason for Nino not arriving at a pre-determined meeting point, and another in which she imagines watching a black and white newsreel detailing her life as a do-gooder. Cartoon-like imagery abounds, including paintings, photographs and furniture coming to life, and a Tex Avery-inspired scene in which Amélie, dismayed, turns to water and splashes on the floor, as well as one in which Amélie’s heart is superimposed against her chest, beating like wild after she runs into Nino. Jeunet clearly has the kind of visual eye that few live action directors are blessed with – A narrator also chimes in at times, speaking in rapid-fire and explaining various quirks about individual characters and occasions.
A review of Amélie would not be complete without addressing some of the spurious criticisms that have been attached to it. I spent a good few hours on the Internet Movie Database prior to writing this piece, engrossing myself in the reading of some highly vitriolic attacks on Jeunet, Kassovitz and the film itself. One poster seemed convinced that the film was a sexist piece of garbage directed by a 13-year-old inside a man’s body. This individual, who shall remain nameless, proceeded to berate the fact that it suggested that a beautiful woman like Amélie could fall for a “big-nosed scrawny bland frenchmen” (sic) like Nino, and that this storyline was simply a wankfest designed for loser males who wanted to kid themselves that attractive women could ever end up going out with men with low-paying jobs. Other accusations include claims that the film is right-wing propaganda (eh?), and that it paints an idealized fantasy portrait of France that is far removed from reality (well, duh!). I can’t possibly begin to comprehend these claims, except to suggest that some individuals are transplanting their own perverse views of life on to a harmless piece of escapism. Amélie is a rare example of a film that has no political or moral pretensions and one that simply wishes to tell the story of a strange but fascinating and genuinely delightful individual who sets out to please others at the expense of her own fulfilment. People can berate it for sugar-coating its situations and ignoring reality all they want, but at the end of the day there is nothing wrong with that. Amélie is without a doubt one of the best five films of 2001, and nothing anyone says can change that for me.
By the way, I would suggest that everyone ignores the ludicrous 15 rating for the UK release and its US counterpart’s ridiculous R. This is G-rated material if ever I saw it.
Amélie is presented anamorphically in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Colour plays a vital role in this film, and the saturation of this transfer is positively eye-popping. Jeunet admits on the audio commentary that he may have tweaked the colours a bit too much for the DVD release, but they are extremely eye-pleasing and make it clear that Amélie’s world and our own are two completely different places. The image does have a very slightly diffuse look, but on the plus side I could spot no edge enhancement whatsoever, even when watching it on a 26″ LCD with my nose practically touching the screen — unlike the American release, which has the usual Miramax halo effect. A handful of compression artefacts do mar the overall effect now and then, with some scenes not having been given an adequate bit rate, but really I’m only attempting to pick minor holes here. This really is a fantastic presentation and is unlikely to be significantly bettered.
Momentum has provided separate Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks, both in French. Optional English subtitles are included, and they are enabled by default. Thankfully an English dub has not been included, and I don’t believe one was ever created, as even the American DVD doesn’t feature one! Surprisingly, the DTS track is actually quieter than the DD one, which is somewhat odd as the opposite is usually the case. Nevertheless, both are great mixes that are reasonably subtle in terms of surround activity, but have an enveloping feel that makes you feel as if you are actually inside the world of Amélie rather than just watching it from a distance.
Commentary – The only extra on Disc 1 is a feature length commentary with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (selected from the audio menu). He apologizes for his English at the start of the commentary, but there is really no need as he is perfectly fluent. The commentary is a relaxed, joke-laden affair, featuring plenty of interesting anecdotes and technical details. Jeunet also mentions his affinity with the work of Tex Avery, whose cartoons influenced the sequence where Amélie turns to water (he also mentions that he wrote a book on Avery). It’s just a shame that the equivalent French commentary was not included on the UK disc as it was on the US version and indeed every other release around the world to feature a commentary.
Unfortunately, the UK 2-disc release is not as feature-packed as the US release, but it still has a lot of good material on offer. Disc 2 is split into three sections: The Café, The Canal and The Station, each corresponding to an important location from the film.
The Café: Audrey Tautou’s funny faces – The second disc kicks off with a very amusing set of outtakes involving Audrey Tautou distorting her features in various amusing and endearing ways. I find it quite amazing how much elasticity she has in her face. Multi angle script to screen – This is actually a storyboard to final film comparison – no scripts here. As fascinating look at the production process, this feature covers two different scenes (Joseph and Georgette getting it on at the café, and Amélie being wooed on the ghost train) and allows you to see with how much precision Jeunet plans his work. Behind the scenes stills – This gallery features a number of photos, colour and black & white, showing various parts of the filming process.
The Canal: Q&A with director and cast – This brief Q&A session features Jeunet, Audrey Tautou, Mattieu Kassovitz and Jamel Debbouze and is conducted in French (with English subtitles). A very light-hearted affair comprised mainly of good-natured ribbing and trivial anecdotes, this feature is quite fun but is too short to get into much detail. Interview with director – This 21-minute feature is essentially Jeunet talking to the camera (in French with English subtitles), setting down his memories of the film’s production a bit like a video journal. Everything is covered, from pre-production to casting to production to people’s reactions to the finished product, including how he felt about it being rejected at the Cannes Film Festival. The fact that the camera remains on Jeunet the whole time and he keeps talking constantly, providing information thick and fast, makes this more worthwhile than a more traditional “making-of” featurette, in my opinion. Screen tests – VHS-sourced screen tests are included of Audrey Tautou, Urbain Cancelier and Yolande Moreau. Making of home video – This 13-minute “fly on the wall” documentary, shot and edited by Liza Sullivan, covers all sorts of aspects of the making of the film, beginning with Audrey Tautou having her hair cut into the now famous style that she wears in the film, and swiftly moving on to the shooting of the photos for the large picture book that is a key prop in the film, as well as showing footage of Jeunet’s elaborate storyboarding, blocking and rehearsal processes. Brief interviews are also included for various members of the cast and crew.
The Station: Five French Teasers and the original French Trailer are also included. There is also an Easter Egg in this section. Selecting the gnome below the Main Menu button and pressing Enter will take you to a world map with seven different selectable locations. Each one shows a photo (or photos) of the gnome in front of various world landmarks. The two discs are stored inside a nicely-designed digipack alongside a miniature booklet featuring credits, press quotes, chapter stops, a synopsis, and various photos from the film. A stripped-down edition, containing only Disc 1, is also doing the rounds and appears to be more prevalent than the double-disc set in many stores. Its packaging is nearly identical to the newer amaray version of the 2-disc release, so beware!
With its child-like appreciation of life’s little things, Amélie achieves a level of innocence that is virtually unknown in today’s increasingly cynical cinema. Presented on a solid DVD by Momentum, this film belongs in everyone’s library.
This review originally appeared at Whiggles.com and is reprinted here with permission.