At the time of writing, Amelie has just been defeated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar by No Man’s Land, a far edgier, less commercial and more contemporary piece of work. It’s a surprising result, because just about everyone agreed that only two things were certain in the awards ceremony this year; victory for Ron Howard over some of the greatest modern directors working today, and victory for the most commercially successful French film since Cyrano de Bergerac. While certainly an enjoyable, beautifully made and occasionally thrillingly original piece of work, it also suffers from a somewhat insubstantial plotline and an occasional feeling that Jeunet might have made a more interesting film had he collaborated with Marc Caro once more.
The story itself is simple. Amelie (Tautou) is a somewhat lonely young woman whose early life has been one of an escape into fantasy after her mother’s death by suicidal tourist and her father’s emotional isolation. Working as a waitress in a Monmartre café, she encounters such oddballs as the limping owner Suzanne (Marier), the hypochondriac tobacconist Georgette (Nanty), the ‘jealous guy’ Joseph (Pinon) and the frustrated writer (Artus de Penguern) . However, when she learns of Princess Diana’s death, she finds a mysterious box of personal effects, and decides to reunite its owner with them. And what, exactly, is Nino Quincampoix (Kassovitz) doing with the old photographs from Metro passport booths?
If ever a film could be said to be a triumph of style over substance, this is it. Jeunet enlivens the thin plot with a breathtaking array of stylistic tricks, including outrageous fantasy scenes, almost Sam Raimi-esque camera effects and hilariously bizarre narrative detours, such as Amelie’s fantasy of what, exactly, might have caused Nino’s lateness at a rendezvous. The first twenty minutes or so proceed with such energy, wit and style that they very nearly rival Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge for sheer kinetic energy. The script rises to the occasion of this insane verve, with minor characters’ likes and dislikes being described in short, surreal scenes throughout, and Yann Tiersen’s jauntily hyperactive score works wonders at sounding authentically French, even managing to use the accordion in a surprisingly fresh and non-cliched fashion. Throughout its short running time, the film is consistently enjoyable, engaging, surprising and funny, as well as being a persuasive argument against French films being little more than bored intellectuals discussing ‘la vie’, a view that should, of course, have been dismissed years ago by such films as Dobermann and Les Rivieres Pourpres.
However, there are still frustrating aspects to the film, all of which become more apparent on a second viewing. For a start, Amelie herself is appropriately charming, winsome and sympathetic, but there’s also something slightly strange about this woman who behaves as if she was an eight-year old girl; a point that a Caro co-directed version of the film might well have made, but which Jeunet fudges somewhat, is that her emotional upbringing ceased upon the death of her mother, and that her every action has a childlike quality to it as a result, even down to the petty revenge that she exacts upon those who displease her in some way. Perhaps because the film has such an insubstantial central character, the plot itself has little real substance; it’s a given from the outset that Amelie will indeed transform the lives of those she comes into contact with (with one amusing exception), just as it’s obligatory that she and Nino will fall in love through their exploration of mutual quirks. An Americanised remake of the film (and such a horror has been mooted) would almost certainly reduce Amelie to little more than another Meg Ryan/ Lisa Kudrow airhead, and it is to Jeunet’s credit that his direction supersedes the predictable plot with some genuine moments of magic and joy.
The performances are all good, with Tautou now something of a superstar in France because of her charmingly offbeat performance here; she has the rare ability to be very attractive and somewhat odd-looking at the same time, one that comes in incredibly useful for a girl who, we are informed by the stern-sounding narrator early on does not have a boyfriend- ‘she tried once or twice but the results were a letdown’, he intones as Amelie is shown in a rather desultory sex scene. Kassovitz meanwhile continues his move towards international stardom with his charming performance as the romantic lead; he’s one of the very few people, along with Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood, who can both direct and act equally well, and in entirely different capacities. The rest of the supporting cast are all fun, especially Jeunet regular Pinon, who apparently expanded a tiny and insignificant role into one of the comic highlights of the piece. Despite some flaws with the insubstantial and occasionally too self-satisfied nature of the film, this is still vastly superior to the majority of films released, and is highly recommended as a result.
One of the film’s many pleasures is the vibrantly beautiful colour scheme used throughout, with a computer-enhanced Paris looking absolutely glorious throughout, if far too attractively to be true. Therefore, any DVD presentation of the film would demand high-quality picture presentation, which is provided stunningly here. Colours are crisp, clear and strong throughout, and there are no noticeable imperfections in Momentum’s transfer, which does the difficult job of making the film look appreciably better than it did in the cinema. A very, very pleasing effort.
French Dolby and DTS soundtracks are both provided, thankfully with English subtitles for those of a less than bilingual nature. Both are exceptionally clear, with the score and dialogue coming through incredibly well, and intelligent use being made of surround effects throughout; although not a demo soundtrack, this is still pleasing stuff.
The French 2-disc SE contains, amongst other goodies, a commentary by Jeunet, various outtakes, making-of features, interviews and odds and ends. Momentum announced that two versions of the disc would be released in Britain, a standard 1-disc edition with no extras bar a commentary, and a 2-disc edition with all the French extras and, it was hinted, possibly some more as well, albeit at the high price of £24.99. Unfortunately, for unspecified legal and copyright reasons, the 2-disc version has been suspended for the foreseeable future. While this doesn’t always mean cancellation- look at Legend and Dogma for proof- it does mean that this single-disc version is going to be the only one on the market for the time being. Unfortunately, it’s rather disappointing. The commentary is the sole extra, and it’s not an especially good one; Jeunet doesn’t sound completely comfortable or confident speaking in English, and concentrates on technical minutae rather than addressing some of the issues raised by the film or the criticisms that it was a piece of right-wing propaganda (an absolutely absurd speculation, incidentally). The absence of even a trailer makes this a rather lacklustre set of extras, especially given that it looks less and less likely that the ‘proper’ edition will be released.
A very enjoyable film is released on a technically superb disc, but with extras that make this feel like the first disc of a 2-disc set. A worthwhile purchase for all non French-speaking casual fans of the film; anyone else would be advised to buy the superb French edition for around the same cost as this, albeit with slightly more hassle.