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Amélie

Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Starring Audrey Tatou

Written by Guillaume Laurant and Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet


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Review by Dawn Taylor                    


It takes an extraordinarily talented director to navigate the lines between dark comedy, parody, whimsy and camp without getting bogged down by his own self-conscious artfulness. Jean-Pierre Jeunet has done this before, with his blackly funny and visually sumptuous films Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995). In his 2001 film Amélie, Jeunet has applied his passion for surreal imagery and penchant for off-beat camerawork to a less bleak, far frothier confection with a more human center and a lot more heart.

The film hits the ground running with a voice-over narration by Andre Dussollier, who introduces us to a variety of local characters, their intimate quirks and habits, and key events in their lives. The fairy-tale flavor of the story is quickly established, and it's fresh, charming, and utterly enchanting. The center of all these rotating characters is Amélie Poulain (the lovely Audrey Tatou), a shy and unassuming young woman who grew up in a home so emotionally barren that her pet goldfish attempted suicide. She works as a waitress in a café called Two Windmills, along with the owner, Suzanne (Claire Maurier), the hypochondriac tobacconist Georgette (Isabelle Nanty), and fellow waitress Gina (Clotilde Mollet).  The restaurant is picturesque and charming in a heightened, ultra-French sort of way, and it has a few regular customers like Gina's possessive ex-boyfriend, Joseph (Dominique Pinon, memorable from previous Jeunet films) and the sadsack writer Hipolito (Artus de Penguern).

More quirky characters live in Amélie's apartment building: the concierge, Madeleine (Yolande Moreau), obsessed with the husband who wrote her beautiful love letters before he abandoned her 30 years ago; Raymond Dufayel (Serge Merlin), known as "The Glass Man,"  who hasn't left his apartment in 30 years due to a bone condition like the one plaguing Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable; and the corner green-grocer, Collignon (Urbain Cancellier), who belittles his slow-witted assistant, Lucien (Jamel Debbouze). Amélie has little to do with the people who surround her until one day, by happenstance, she finds a 40-year-old tin box filled with a child's mementos and sets out to return the box to its owner. After seeing the happy reaction of the now-grown man when he rediscovers his treasures, Amélie sets out to do good deeds for all the people around her. Her secret schemes aren't always successful, but are wildly entertaining to watch. Amélie sets up café regular Joseph with the lonely, dyspeptic Georgette, the pair consummating their attraction in the café's toilette with such enthusiasm that it threatens to knock the glassware off the shelves; she has a conspirator mail her withdrawn father photos of his purloined garden gnome visiting famous landmarks around the world; and the concierge is given the chance to resolve her anger at her errant husband when Amélie assembles a "new" letter proclaiming his love, which arrives after supposedly being lost atop Mont Blanc for 30 years.

During the course of her adventures, Amélie comes across Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), who works part time in both a porn shop and the funhouse at a local carnival. She immediately senses in him a kindred spirit, mainly because of his peculiar hobby of collecting discarded pictures from photo booths and reassembling them in an album. Though she wants Nino, Amélie is so shy that all she can do is, basically, stalk him — until the efforts of her friends, the people whose lives she's been changing, give her a shot at finding love herself.

*          *          *

Amélie is more than Jeunet's attempt to make a lighter, sweeter film than his previous efforts — it's also a love letter to Paris, in much the same way that Woody Allen romanticized his beloved New York in Manhattan. Paris here is charming, friendly, and picture-postcard adorable, with eccentric citizens and the ever-present sound of accordion music. It's not a Paris that really exists outside of old movies or, more importantly, the memories of Parisians. Amélie is Jeunet's first film that utilizes actual locations, but they're heightened and sanitized. Amélie's neighborhood is all cobbled streets and charming cafés, and Jeunet has acknowledged that he digitally cleaned up the graffiti on the walls, polished the automobiles' appearances, and inserted brighter, happier posters on the buildings. The entire film has a bright, candy-colored look, in fact, thanks to the wonders of digital filmmaking — Jeunet, like Joel and Ethan Coen on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, boosted and changed the colors throughout his film in post-production. The result is a movie with a wondrous fantasy quality that perfectly reflects Amélie's vivid inner world, a world where her own heartbeat blazes in her chest like a beacon and her ceramic pig lamp reaches up and turns itself off at night.

Amélie was a phenomenon in France (where it was released as The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain), breaking box-office records and creating something of a scandal when journalists demanded to know why the film wasn't presented at Cannes (more on that below). It's a film filled with wonderful characters, visuals, ideas, and set-pieces, not all of them icky-sweet — at one point, Amélie looks out over the city of Paris and wonders how many people are having orgasms at the moment, and Jeunet quickly shows us a montage of couples at the moment of climax as Amélie decides, "Fifteen." Due to a couple of relatively mild scenes like this one, Amélie was treated to an undeserved R-rating by the MPAA.

The truly cynical may find the self-aware, pixieish charm of Amélie a tad treacly, but with Jeunet's nimble use of whimsy — as well as the wacky-yet-beautiful cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel — the film never sinks into the sort of gooey pap to which American films of this type generally fall prey. Amélie is weird and wonderful, using state-of-the-art film techniques to tell an old-fashioned story full of clever charm.

*          *          *

Buena Vista Home Entertainment's DVD release of Amélie does justice to Jeunet's obsessive perfectionism. The transfer is stunning — beautifully crisp and color saturated, in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) with extraordinarily rich Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. It's also an extensive package, two discs with a boatload of extras:

Disc One

Along with the movie, Disc One offers an English language commentary track by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Jeunet is funny, smart, and not the least bit hesitant to point out what scenes he's less than happy with or which special effects didn't turn out the way he'd hoped. He also heaps praise on his actors, cinematographer, and other co-workers, tells very amusing anecdotes about the film, and makes comments like, "This fish, this is a CGI fish. Because, you know, real fish are very hard to direct." Jeunet comes off as every bit the insane obsessive-compulsive that one would imagine him to be after seeing his films. He's also extremely likable and never boring. Also available is a French language commentary track by Jeunet in which he probably says all the same things — if you speak French, it would be a lot of fun to compare the two.

Disc Two

This is where all the goodies are, and there are a lot of goodies. To wit:

The 13-minute featurette The Look of Amélie offers Jeunet, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, and actor-director Mathieu Kassovitz discussing the design of the film — how digital technology was used to create the ultra-saturated colors, how Jeunet composed scenes, and revelations such as Jeunet sharing that he'll do 18 drafts of a screenplay and then storyboard every single shot before starting to shoot. He also says at one point that the reason he went the digital route with Amélie is because he was so disappointed with some of the prints of Delicatessen, feeling that they didn't reflect the work he'd done, and audiences are cheated when they're given washed-out prints with incorrect colors.

The Fantasies of Audrey Tatou is a collection of outtakes of the actress swearing, making silly faces, and just generally being adorable and watchable.

Screen Tests are just what they sound like — screen tests for Tatou, Urbain Cancellier (Collignon), and Yolande Moreau (Madeleine).

The 25-minute Q&A with Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a video of Jeunet on stage at American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, in January of 2002. Jeunet discusses the genesis of Amélie, saying he'd collected all these anecdotal stories for 25 years, intending to make a film. He also talks about his original casting of Emily Watson as Amélie (he wrote the first versions of the screenplay for her, in fact, having seen her in Breaking the Waves) and how depressed he was when she dropped out of the film "for personal reasons." A highlight of the discussion is when a young film student type asks about the influence of the French New Wave on Jeunet's work, and he responds, only half-joking, "Forget the French New Wave! It was fifty years ago! ... I hate the French New Wave." When asked what his influences were, he then cites A Clockwork Orange and Once Upon a Time in the West.

A six-minute Q&A with the Director and Cast features Jeunet, Tatou, Kassovitz, and Jamel Debbouze (Lucien) fielding similar questions from a French audience (subtitled in English).

The funhouse sequence, with Nino hovering behind Amélie in his skeleton costume, gets a Storyboard-to-Screen Comparison. Disappointingly, this is the only scene that's featured.

The 21-minute featurette, An Intimate Chat with Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a simple, one-shot reminiscence by the director, made when he concluded shooting the film. Much of what he says is repeated in the Q&A features and on the commentary track. It's another sign of the director's obsessive nature that he recorded this, which he explains by saying how, as a DVD collector, he was so impressed by M. Night Shymalan's DVD of The Sixth Sense that he wanted to make sure all the details of Amélie's production were recorded for posterity. Among the more interesting anecdotes he shares regard his involvement with a big production company that tried to convince Jeunet to make the film with a much larger budget that he really wanted; they finally dropped the project when Jeunet refused to turn Amélie into a bigger, more expensive movie because, he says, "they said they couldn't sell it abroad." He also shares some of the oddball mail he's received from fans of the film, and details his unpleasant relationship with the officials at the Cannes Film Festival. Having received, he recalls, a chilly reception for The City of Lost Children, Jeunet was hesitant to present Amélie at Cannes. He screened the film for festival head Gilles Jacob, who said that the film was "uninteresting," but he could enter it if he felt like it. Jeunet chose to release his film separately, outside of Cannes — and set off a huge controversy when the press, who almost universally loved the film, began hounding Jacob and demanding to know why the film wasn't part of the festival.

Home Movies is a section containing hair and makeup tests; behind-the-scenes footage of the extras (including, I swear, actor Tchéky Karyo!) shooting the many, many photo-booth pictures used in the film; "The Jamel Show", featuring actor Jamel Debbouze being a wise-ass; "Orgasms", offering a glimpse into the shooting of the people-having-sex montage; and "Self-Portraits, a bunch of freaky stills created with a split-lens effect.

The Amélie Scrapbook is the requisite collection of stills, poster concepts, and storyboards, plus the very funny "traveling garden gnome" photos.

Also on board are trailers and TV spots, which mostly serve to illustrate how bad Miramax is at selling foreign films to American audiences. The French trailer is much better.

— Dawn Taylor



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