Movie review: The simplicity of “Amélie”

by Arely Sun, Co-Lifestyle Editor

An old blind man staggers near a curb, poking his cane at the street below. The camera zooms in on a quirky French girl’s bob-haircut-framed face as she steps up to take his arm to guide him across the bustling road. They bumpily weave through the crowd, zipping past colorful shops. Her sing-song voice speeds through an illustrative description of vivid scenes. At last, they approach the gray staircase of the metro station, and she darts away, leaving the old man in awe. He tilts his head to the sky, a bewildered smile plastered on his face. And voila! Amélie’s first act of good.

The movie “Amélie” is filled with whimsical beauty without becoming cluttered. Despite its being two decades old, the French film still evokes positivity in viewers, and its contagious joy remains just as potent in current times—a welcome sensation especially amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou), the titular heroine of the film, enjoys the simple pleasures in life. She dips her hand in a sack of grain, skips stones on the Canal Saint-Martin and cracks the hard shell of a crème brûlée with the tip of her spoon. As a child, her father falsely diagnosed her with a heart condition and deemed her too frail for school, leaving her isolated and crushingly shy throughout her early life. In her solitude, she finds solace in eccentric activities.

Years later, as an adult, she discovers a small box of a little boy’s treasures and trinkets hidden behind a dislodged tile in her apartment. The box sparks an idea in her: she vows to return the box to its rightful owner. If the deed enlightens him, she will continue to better others’ lives. If not, too bad or “tant pis,” as the narrator says in the movie.

Unsurprisingly, her act of kindness succeeds, plunging Amélie into a domino effect of using playful ploys to bring joy to people’s lives. After performing an array of helpful deeds, such as fostering affection between coworkers and punishing an abusive grocer to help his kindhearted employee, she ultimately embarks on a journey to find happiness for herself through an unconventional city-wide chase to return a photo album to her love-at-first-sight.

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet crafts the film as a pop-up book with its quirky plot and its lively characters. The movie’s aesthetic and musical soundtrack set a dreamy, almost surreal mood.

The Paris portrayed in “Amélie” leans more towards a fantastical village than towards the image of the real city. Streets and metro stations are impeccable, and the citizens of the dreamy world cooperate and fit in nicely. Jeunet cleaned up and recolored backdrops to maintain this surreal ambiance.  The common palette of faded red, yellow and green used in nearly every frame sets the characters in a world that almost resembles a painting or a storybook.

The simplicity of the tricolor scheme couples perfectly with the quintessentially French musical scores composed by Yann Tiersen. If you hate the rustic accordion that occupies the melodies of many of the songs, have no fear: you may fall in love with the famous piano piece “Comptine d’un Autre Été” or the orchestral version of the movie’s theme.

The movie’s cast is incredibly talented. The actors’ simplest actions illustrate the traits of their respective characters and convey profound meaning, with no lengthy and dramatic dialogue required. Tautou’s skillful portrayal of Amélie leaves no room for doubt in her complete transformation into the idiosyncratic protagonist. 

One of the movie’s weaker moments would be the occasional uncomfortable use of special effects. For example, one animated shot shows a strange glowing yellow heart beating in Amélie’s chest when she first falls in love. While some critics on IMDb claim that these strange effects add to the whimsical element, most might find them superfluous, as I did. The movie does contain some nudity and a few suggestive jokes, so the movie is suggested for mature audiences.

Especially in times like this with widespread anxiety about the coronavirus pandemic, you might feel the need for a comforting escape to restore optimism and joy. “Amélie” perfectly suits that desire: its quirky beauty will leave you in a state of wonder and might prompt you to seek life’s simple pleasures or even decide to do good in an Amélie-esque fashion.