Amelie (2001): Charming Fable from Jean-Pierre Jeunet Starring Audrey Tautou

Most people associate French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet with dark and darkly humorous films, such as “Delicatessen” and “City of Lost Children,” which were co-directed with Marc Caro. Thus his new, light romantic comedy, “Amelie,” was greeted with pleasant surprise, and was immediately embraced by French and foreign audiences.

The fable centers on a Parisian woman named Amelie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) whose bizarre childhood has left her with an acute awareness of the emotional needs of others. Working as a waitress, she perceived her vocation-actually her mission in life–as orchestrating the happiness of those around her, even if it calls for matchmaking and personal interfering with their lives.

The saga is set in the summer of 1997, when Amelie learns about the death of Princess Diana, a traumatic event that changes her life dramatically. Amelie need to know the sentimental story behind each memento in a mysterious box she accidentally finds.

Though Tautou dominates almost every frame of the film, Jeunet does not neglect the other characters and the surrounding social milieu, the famed Monmartre neighborhood with its vibrant social community.

As writers, Jeunet plays with the factors of fateful chance, rational choice, and probability and their impact on the ways that people structure their lives and fulfill (or not) their needs and desires.

This being a romantic fantasy, it’s only a matter of time before our heroine wakes up to her own needs and falls for a young man (Mathieu Kassovitz, also known as director), who to make a living needs to hold two divergent jobs, at an amusement park and at a porn studio.

Like every Jeunet film, “Amelie” is richly textured with visual gimmicks, trick camera shots, skewed angles, fast cuts from one locale to another, sight gags, and other amusing bits that enrich the simple tale.

Predictably, the movie increased international tourism to Paris, which is depicted in such glamorous and mythical ways that it makes you fall in love with the City of Lights all over again, if you know it, or for the first time, if you don’t.

For my taste, Amelie the woman is too nice and kind, and “Amelie” the movie too soft and cute. This is a romantic comedy in which courtship is all and sex doesn’t feature at all, not even in the periphery.

That said, “Amelie” film exudes warmth and a certain charm, and Audrey Tautou is likely to become a major French star, perhaps even an international one as well. There is nice chemistry between the shy, gamine-like Tatou and Kassovitz.

The wry narration, by Andre Doussolier, comments on Amelie’s past, which is illustrated in a series of flashbacks, and later on offers links among the various story’s episodes.

Despite the above criticism, I perfectly understand why “Amelie” broke box-office records in France, the U.S. and most other countries, and even became the official French submission to the Foreign-Language Oscar.