Amelie has become one of the year's biggest hits in France, with the critics and public lining up to shower praises on it. If you believe the hype, here is a film that combines the wit and style of vintage Hollywood with Gallic eccentricity to make a truly wonderful and memorable cinematic confection, and Momentum clearly believe that it has massive crossover potential, giving it an unusually wide release for a foreign film, as well as blanket advertising (and a trailer that, cunningly, managed to make the film look as if it were English or American by simply not using subtitles at all). In a sense, it feels almost mean-spirited to criticise it for not living up to the immense hype, as it is easily one of the most visually inventive, stylish and original films of the year; the problem is that, after Moulin Rouge and AI, American filmmaking has once again shown how good it can be, thus meaning that there is no longer desperate longing for a film that isn't the usual Hollywood pap.
The plot is simple; perhaps too simple, a cynic might argue, to sustain the 2 hour length. Amelie Poulain (Tatou) is an eccentric young woman living in Paris in 1997. In the day, she works in a café populated by oddballs, such as the hypochondriac tobacconist Georgette (Nanty), the 'jealous guy' Joseph (Jeunet regular Pinon) and the limping owner (Marier). However, after discovering a child's box in her bathroom, she decides that her purpose in life is to start creating happiness for others, which she begins to do, albeit with initially mixed results. However, it seems that happiness has passed her by, until she meets Nino (Kassovitz), a sex shop worker/ part-time ghost who might just be her soulmate.
It's perhaps unfair and unrealistic to compare this to Moulin Rouge; although both films are visually stunning love stories from acclaimed and highly idiosyncratic directors that are set in the Montmartre area, this is not a musical, and its adherence to genre is far more traditional than Baz Luhrmann's, despite the many wonderfully bizarre touches scattered about. (For starters, how many other films have, in their first 15 minutes or so, a suicidal goldfish, death by suicidal tourist and a fantasy scene involving a sick bear?). Yet this is also a romantic comedy, and it works very well as an offbeat example of that, with very appealing performances from the Hepburn-esque Tatou and Kassovitz, who is on a roll at the moment with his appearance in this, and his recent direction of Les rivieres pourpres. It goes almost without saying that the film's depiction of a semi-fantastic Paris is glorious, that Yann Tiersen's score is superb and that the cast, especially the wonderful Pinon, are all excellent.
Therefore, you may be asking, why on earth do I feel a 'but' coming on? The 'but' here is less an aspersion on the film's quality, and more on the sheer hyperbole that the film has attracted, with virtually every magazine, website and newspaper falling over themselves to praise the film. It's certainly not perfect as a film in its own right; the subplot with the glass-boned artist (shades of Unbreakable, perhaps) drags, the film is too long, and the conclusion feels far less impressive than much of what has gone before. It's also impossible to avoid feeling, as many did about Moulin Rouge, that the director has merely repeated himself, with Jeunet's flourishes here recalling Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, albeit in a far more cosy and unthreatening situation. The film attracted some mild controversy in France for its sanitised portrayal of Paris; while there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that (it's a film, not a political statement!), it's hard to avoid the feeling that, had Jeunet collaborated with Marc Caro once again, a darker and more interesting film might have ensued.
However, carping aside, this is still a highly enjoyable experience, and is recommended on that basis, although it would be advisable not to believe the rather excessive hype that has surrounded the film. Glorious and beautiful work of art, or right-wing exercise in sentimental wallowing? You decide.