The Tipping Point

One little waitress sets out to transform all of Paris with her good deeds.

AMELIE

directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet with Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz, and Dominique Pinon opens Nov. 9 at Egyptian IS THIS THE DEATH of French cinema? After the insufferably pompous, unrelentingly serious, resoundingly unfunny Va Savoir (which represented itself as a comedy!), has joy actually penetrated that dour nation of cineastes, auteurs, and philosophers? Could it be that a sage smile lurks behind the infamous Gallic frown of indifference and disapproval? Amelie says yes. The eponymous heroine of the second solo effort by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (co-director of Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children) won't take no for an answer. From the movie's initial rapid-fire barrage of her biographical details, it's clear that obstacles shall be removed, mysteries resolved, endings made happy. No wonder, then, that in an Audrey Hepburn-like turn as Amelie, little-known Audrey Tautou should radiate such optimism in her official stateside debut. (In truth, she had a supporting role in January's Venus Beauty Institute, but we'll overlook that for now.) Discovering a cookie-tin treasure trove within the walls of her old Paris apartment, Amelie first sets out to reunite the precious boyhood tokens with their (now) aged owner, then stumbles upon an entire secret city of hidden connections and amorous links. From there, impulsively deciding to act as an agent of destiny, the humble Montmartre cafe worker becomes a student of happenstance, a scholar of random encounters, a savant of the coincidental. At her cafe, Amelie conspires to hook up a lovelorn tobacconist with a curmudgeonly patron, Joseph (Dominique Pinon, a welcome presence from all Jeunet's films). Meanwhile she plays mind games with her uptight widowed father, abducting his ceramic garden gnome with hilarious results. She also falls into possession of a strange photo album kept by the handsome, mysterious Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz, director of The Crimson Rivers and actor from A Self-Made Hero, among other titles.) It's a lot to take in, and director Jeunet introduces his characters in such a cartoonish, breathlessly paced montage that you wonder if the film will ever settle into meaning or coherence. RELAX. IT DOES. If Amelie is about anything, it's about the overlooked, invisible bonds between us distracted, harried urban dwellers. Jeunet's fantastic, quirky Paris is patently artificial, but his gallery of oddballs and eccentrics somehow coexists on the same canvass. Amelie befriends an old painter-voyeur in her building who obsessively copies Renoir's The Bathing Party, and Jeunet uses that work to symbolize the mystery of the figure in the crowd whose connection to us remains tantalizing but obscure. Amelie is really a detective in this sense, probably the most charming private eye in screen history. In particular, she's keen on the physical clues the rest of us miss. ("She cultivates a taste for small pleasures," the narrator intones.) Alert to the haptic hedonism of kneading fruit or poking her fingers in a bag of beans, she flickers an infectious, impish half-smile. (Here, she startlingly resembles Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean character, the benevolent yin to his mischievous yang.) Yet intrepid Amelie's epic catalog of likes and dislikes still leaves her alone. "I'm nobody's little weasel," she laments, allowing Jeunet to add a love story as the cherry atop his teetering Everest of sweet whimsy. (Too sweet, some will protest.) Those who loved the baroque physical comedy and memorable character actors of Jeunet's earlier collaborations with Marc Caro (e.g. Delicatessen) will not be disappointed here. Amelie is a byzantine, Rube Goldberg-like affair, so elaborately constructed and poised to topple that a dropped bottle cap can jolt the machinery into motion—and it does—with life-altering consequences. In conversation, Jeunet cites his novelist friend Paul Auster (Moon Palace), whose meditations on chance and coincidence provide something of a philosophical framework for the frenetic Amelie. There's nothing bookish about this lightweight, madcap confection, however, with Jeunet's vertiginous camera, distorted lenses, CGI effects, and digitally enhanced colors—particularly those reds and yellows! His heroine loves movies, and moviegoers will have no choice, it seems, but to love her in return. bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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