Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain

I don’t know how much if any of this carries in the U.S., but in Quebec we often hear of the new French movie which audiences are running to see, and it’s always supposed to be “géééniaaal”! When we get to see it though, the cultural divide sometimes shows, and we watch with bored disbelief wondering what the cousins are on to like this crap. Seldom, the latest French crowd-pleaser is just that: “Le Dîner de cons” from a couple of years ago, for instance, is as clever and hilarious as comedies get. But whatever buzz that Francis Veber hit had, this is nothing compared to the undying praise which was received by “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain”, the new film by Jean Pierre Jeunet, of “Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children” fame (he also commited the 4th “Alien” flick). So what about “Amélie”? Well… I really wanted to fall in love with the movie, but I didn’t find it that special. It’s an amusing, quirky little feel-good picture, no more, no less.

Meet Amélie Poulain, a young woman from Montmartre, just out of Paris. As a child, she had to cope with offbeat parents who thought she had heart problems and wouldn’t let her go to school with the other children. So she created herself an imaginary world where much anything can happen, and that was nice but… She’s now 23, a waitress at Les 2 Moulins, a cozy neighbourhood café, but she’s still stuck in the world in her head, not quite able to interact with others. She doesn’t do anything about until one day when, after learning of Princess Di’s death, she finds a small metal box with toys in it hidden behind a wall of her apartment. She sets out to find its owner and give him back that piece of his childhood. Thus begins her fantasy quest to discreetly get involved in the lives of her friends and neighbours, trying to create happiness everywhere she goes…

That is a nice story, isn’t it? It’s nicely executed, too. Jeunet is a great visualist and every shot in his film is gorgeous. Director of photography Bruno Delbonnel gives the film the rich, warm colors of a storybook, and Jeunet keeps playing with camera angles and visual tricks, keeping everything dynamic and original. This also goes with the casting, which unites an interesting gallery of character actors. There’s Jamel Debbouze as a slow-witted but perfectionist fruit vendor, Isabelle Nanty as an hypochondriac tobacco salesgirl, Artus de Penguern as a failed writer, Serge Merlin as an old man with the same disease as Mr. Glass from “Unbreakable” who never leaves his apartment, where he keeps copying Renoir’s “Déjeuner des Canotiers” over and over, and Rufus as Amélie’s widowed dad, who has a unhealthy obsession with a plaster gnome.

And then of course there’s Amélie herself, wonderfully played by Audrey Tautou. She’s funny, touching and just lovable; she’s the kind of character you want to yank off the screen and hug. If there’s one thing I really loved about the movie, it’s her… Even though, about midway through, the movie is dragged down by romantic comedy conventions. Amélie falls in love with a mysterious guy (played by filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz) who collects discarded photomaton pictures, and the remainder of the film is an extended cat-and-mouse game/treasure hunt/seduction. There are still some beautiful moments of cinematic poetry and cute, amusing bits, but this isn’t the pop masterpiece the early scenes make you think you’re in for.

Jeunet has basically lifted his premise off “Magnolia” (down to the tone of the narration and the weather reports), but instead of making a breath-taking opera like Paul Thomas Anderson, Jeunet settles for a catchy little ballad. “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain” ends up being little more than “Sleepless in Montmartre”, or a feature length episode of “Ally McBeal”. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I actually like “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Ally”, I just don’t fall over myself praising them. So there you have it: “Amélie” is entertaining and inventive enough, but don’t expect the life-altering perfect gem the French have been raving about.