A romantic ode to film itself.
On my first ever visit to Paris, I discovered I’d unknowingly booked myself a room in Montmartre, the part of town in which Amélie is set. I was taken on an impromptu walking tour by an artist I met in a café, past the old studios of Picasso and Van Gogh, past the very café where the character Amélie (Audrey Tatou) works, and finally to the Moulin Rouge, just around the corner on the main road full of burlesque theatres and porn stores. The artist explained that Amélie was the Montmartre folk tale: the romantic local girl dreams of falling in love with the boy who works at the sex shop (Mathieu Kassovitz).
For years, I believed the common reading of the film’s protagonist: Amelie herself was merely a manic pixie dream girl, a fantasy of director, co-writer, and expressionistic visual stylist Jean-Pierre Jeunet. It took a while for me to see what I think Amélie actually is: a romance not about people, but about storytelling, and about film itself.
If Amélie is a manic pixie dream girl, that girl is the film’s director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
Amélie is a dreamer, who observes others through lenses (windows, telescopes, frames) in order to learn the details through which she can touch their lives – but only ever through her creativity. She creates stories about people she often only imagines. She meddles with lives by tinkering with details, making adjustments, giving (literal) notes. The happiness she seeks to bring to the lives of others is often romantic, usually aspirational, and almost always momentary. Amélie is a specific kind of dreamer: she is a writer, director, and editor.
Most tellingly, Amélie’s tools are audiovisual: the postcards from her widower father’s garden gnome, sent to spur him on to finally leave the house and see the world; the montages of moments from humans and animals at their most wondrous, which she videotapes and gifts to her reclusive, brittle-boned neighbour, the “glass” man; the house of horrors she creates for the mean grocer, by skewing light, sound, and wardrobe to punish him for his darkness; and most literal of all, the cut-and-paste of letters, like an editor cutting and splicing together segments of film, to create a new story. The widowed landlord reads that new letter, unaware of the mechanical, calculated processes that went into its creation, and feels only joy – and even though we do know the process, we feel delight, even amazement, at the alchemy of that process. And Jeunet makes sure the process itself is part of our delight: each snippet in that “new” letter retains its original background noise, showing us exactly how montage can create magic:
Amélie the character is Jeunet the film-maker; the sweet boy at the sex shop is his film-making muse; and the ultimate joy of the movie is the miraculous power of film, of the celluloid material itself, to create transcendent joy. If Amélie is a manic pixie dream girl, that girl is Jeunet – one who is deliriously in love with a joy that we’re invited to share.