There is an exquisitely-sweet, existential joy to every last frame of Jean-Pierre Jeneut’s Amélie.
Suffused with a whimsy that might seem overly self-conscious at first (but ultimately isn’t), it is an effortless celebration of what it means to be human, and the myriad flaws, foibles and blips of the psyche that often prevent us from fully realising its full potential.
Released in 2001, Amélie is one of those rare films that proves capable of drawing together the optimist, the cynic, the hopeful and the jaded; this has much to do with the fact that Jeneut balances the effortless quirkiness with a knowingness that not everything works out, even in artfully-constructed Parisian fairytales.
Both of these elements are present in the life of the titular protagonist (Audrey Tautou), an introverted waitress working at a cafe in Montmartre with the requisite gaggle of oddball customers and fellow employees, is painfully, socially-awkward, the product of a lifetime spent with repressed parents, and seemingly incapable of making her fabulous, over-gilded dreams come true.
In search of some meaning in her life, an affliction near-universal for anyone who has ever drawn breath, Amélie has an epiphany of sorts one day when she finds a box, hidden in 1957 by a young boy, in a cavity in her bathroom wall and decides, without reservation, that she will find its owner and reunite the now-grown child and the lost relics of his childhood.
This is, of course, easier than done, not simply because of the passage of the time but because it forces Amélie to interact with the bullying local neighbourhood grocer (the recipient of some sage life lessons courtesy of the waitress on a mission), her neighbours and the community at large, something she has been hitherto reluctant to do.
Almost from the start, we are given a mix of the whimsical and the real, the fantastical and the all too grounded, as Amélie reunites people and possessions – setting in train a delightful family reunion – hopes and fulfillment, a one-woman Mother Theresa of wishes granted.
The one big catch to all this joyous bonhomie is that Amélie herself is unable to make her own dreams come true.
There is a melancholy to watching her spur her homebound father Rufus (Raphaël Poulain) – her mother died years before in a humourously nasty incident at Notre Dame Cathedral – to travel the world via a travelling gnome from his garden, and engage with her hermit painter neighbour, Raymond Dufayel, “The Glass Man” (Serge Merlin), who works out fairly quickly that his new young quiet friend is always talking in code about herself, when you know she is denying her own’s heart’s desires.
It’s painful to watch much of the time as the fey, idealistic waitress comes oh-so-close to meeting the handsome but odd man who collects ripped up images from under railway photo booths, Nino Quincampoix (Matthieu Kassovitz), only to pull away at the last moment.
As we watch Amélie yo-yo back-and-forth in her own life between what she wants and what she is capable of realising, Jenneut grounds his blissfully delightful fairytale in the realities of every day life.
Rather than sap away the magic of each and every ethereal scene, Jenneut actually adds to the fairytale fantasticness of it all by balancing melancholy and hope, adorable moments of heart-stirring joy with the grinding awareness that not every dream comes true.
Take the attempt to unite the cafe’s resident tobacco seller and class-A hypochondriac Georgette (Isabelle Nanty) and near-omnipresent customer Joseph (Dominique Pinon), who spends his days stalking his ex, Amélie’s fellow waitress Gina.
At first it seems magical, another arrow in Amélie’s quiver of life achievements, but things quickly sour and love dies in a welter of nervous moments and obsessive intent; however, while all this is playing out, Nino is finally, slowly and carefully tracking down Amélie to the cafe where, as you might expect, love finally plays out as this gorgeous romantic comedy always intended.
It is this wending together of the best and the worst of life that saves Amélie from falling into a narrative so fey it floats way on a bed of fairy floss feel-good emotions.
The film makes an impact precisely because Tautou invests the protagonist with as much uncertainty and vulnerability as there is hopeful dreaming; in fact, so successful is she at humanising Amélie that all the good and wonderful things that happen to others, and finally, belatedly to her, come to feel deeply, deservedly real.
This is a fairytale with its feet firmly on the ground, a film that understands that all the happy endings in the world aren’t worth very much if we don’t see and understand how many angst has gone into their creation.
You walk away from Amélie convinced that magical things are possible but all too ware as well that first you must navigate the rabbit’s warren of obstacles, emotional snare traps and disillusionment that await you on the path to happy ever after.
Through its giddily quirky narration and oversized but eminently real and relatable characters play out their stories against a Paris that is lit up like a Christmas window display but rooted in the everyday, you appreciate the reality and life-affirming worth of Jeneut’s balanced and emotionally-rewarding approach.
But Amélie is never so set on being real that it sacrifices its inherent capacity for joy and wonder, in the process realising a world in which dreams are entirely real and possible, if only you’ll give yourself permission to experience them.