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Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2001

What's wrong with a little joie de vivre ?

Le Fabuleux destin d'Amelie Poulain

Rating: * * * *
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Running time: 122 minutes
Language: French
Now showing

Amelie Poulain is a spritelike young woman, her sparkling eyes and mischievous grin framed by a girlish black bob. Her fashionably natty Montmartre apartment is filled with bizarre, cute kitsch, like portraits of silly dogs and geese, and a lamp that's held by Mr. Pig. Amelie doesn't have a boyfriend, but she does have her turn-ons: sticking her hand into a bagful of dried legumes, or -- ooh la la! -- breaking the crust on a creme brulee.

News photo
Audrey Tautou in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Le Fabuleux d'Amelie Poulain"

When not working as a waitress at an oh-so-Parisian cafe -- the 2 Moulins, just down the Rue Lepic from the Moulin Rouge -- she enjoys playing good-natured pranks on her neighbors, as well as helping people out without them even knowing it. She embarks on this path after seeing reports of the death of Princess Di on the evening news. Shocked, Amelie switches off the TV. With silent resolve, she decides to stop watching a "Queen of Hearts" and instead go out and be one, an impish angel of mercy.

When she finds a box of toys and memorabilia from decades ago hidden in her apartment wall, she seeks out the owner and amazes the old man by arranging for him to stumble upon his forgotten childhood treasures as if they materialized out of thin air. Chuffed by her little stunt, Amelie engineers more, fabricating a love letter for her building's sad concierge and mysteriously returning a lost photo album to its owner, Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), a boy whom she secretly fancies.

Amelie's not all sugar and spice, though: When she tires of seeing the neighborhood grocer (Urbain Cancelier) bully his meek assistant (Jamel Debbouze), she breaks into the old man's apartment and creates a living hell for him, switching his hemorrhoid cream for his toothpaste . . . and worse.

Did I mention that Amelie is played by an actress named Audrey? That's Audrey Tautou, not the ghost of Hepburn, but she does share that same combination of waifish innocence and natural elegance. Actually, in her oversize shoes and funky but chic skirt-and-sweater combos, she looks more like an Audrey H. wannabe, which will definitely endear her to similar sorts of young women found on the streets of Harajuku, Daikanyama and Jiyugaoka. I hope Cinema Rise is prepared for the daily crush of 1,000 Louis Vuitton bags.

With such a heroine, "Amelie" could have easily veered into a horribly twee Lolita-in-Paris sort of cul-de-sac, but director Jean-Pierre Jeunet injects a dose of madly inventive humor into the proceedings. As with his previous films -- "Delicatessen" and "The City of Lost Children," but especially his short film "Foutaises" -- Jeunet proves he is a master at using visual tricks to deliver a punch line. He has a fondness for the in-your-face zoom to punctuate a joke, but his real skill is in playful jump-cut digressions, where he hits you with some zany counterpoint from out of the blue -- inanimate objects talk, Amelie dissolves into water or a flurry of orgasmic shrieks answers a rhetorical question.

In a welcome return home after a rote franchise flick in Hollywood ("Alien 4"), France's most visionary stylist somewhat surprisingly turns his eye on the here and now. But, Jeunet being Jeunet, he fashions an illusory and hyperreal vision of Paris (especially the romanticized neighborhood ambience of Montmartre), digitally erasing all the illegally parked cars, graffiti and dog poop from the streets and populating it with a stock of Gallic caricatures, from the grumpy grocer to the gravelly voiced cafe madame.

Jeunet's Paris has been decried -- mostly by leftist critics with too much time on their hands -- as a dose of nationalist nostalgia that refuses to address the street-level reality of the city today, a theme park Disneyfication of the city. This is a reaction that's as mean-spirited as it is misplaced: In a country that already boasts some of the world's best social realists -- both Cedric Klapisch and Claire Denis have done Montmartre well -- isn't there room for a fantasist or two? Jeunet has always enjoyed creating imaginary worlds, and it's no mean trick to achieve that feel on real locations.

What Jeunet is giving us is a playground Paris that reflects the attitude of his heroine toward life. Instead of brooding in dour urban alienation, Amelie finds herself transfixed by the tide of individuals the city offers and the endless possibilities for connection. (And openness to joy seems to be a quality no serious critic can condone.)

Amelie's gleeful embrace of the streets of Paris and its denizens -- like some cartoon offspring of the Nouvelle Vague -- is set in contrast to her father, Raphael (Rufus), a glum homebody who rarely strays beyond his suburban garden. In one of her best tricks, Amelie steals his prized garden gnome; Raphael is bewildered beyond belief when he starts to receive teasing letters containing tourist snapshots of the gnome in front of the Kremlin or Big Ben.

It's this belief in weaving mind-blowing pranks into the fabric of everyday life that makes Amelie a Dada heroine, a child of Duchamp and Dali. Whether she's manipulating a tryst between two of the cafe regulars, or filching gnomes, Amelie always desires to impose the unexpected upon the unsuspecting. Her art is surprise, and Jeunet certainly shares that trait with his heroine.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, albeit a happy one, is that "Amelie" has been the top-grossing film in France this year, spearheading a resurgence in French film that has seen domestic films increase their share vis-a-vis the Hollywood imports for the first time in years. Cannes may have snubbed it, but everyone else has loved it; certainly "Amelie" is no less contrived or unreal than last year's Cannes winner, "Dancer in the Dark," but unlike that film, "Amelie" doesn't wear its pretensions on its sleeve. It dares to be silly, charming, playful and fun, all the while balanced by a sharp and irreverent wit. Believe it or not, here's a feel-good movie you can feel good about.

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