Recommended Viewing Situation:
Surrounded by candles, sucking raspberries off your fingertips and heavily projecting your own life onto the characters on-screen.
Running Time: 122 minutes.
Format: 35mm Film.
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
Writers: Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant.
Cinematographer: Bruno Delbonnel.
Awards: BAFTA for Best Screenplay, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant; BAFTA for Best Production Design, Aline Bonetto; among others.
Do you ever feel like your life needs more shy sex-shop employees and jet-setting garden gnomes? Of course you do. Amélie or Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001) is the introvert’s dream; a charming masterpiece of too-good-to-be-realism that reminds you that good things happen when you get out of the house. Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tatou) has always felt alone; she grew up without playmates and at 23 she’s not sure how to act around other people. But she’s content with her solitary life; she has a routine full of small pleasures and free from compromise, until one day she finds a treasure belonging to a previous tenant of her apartment. Her attempts to return it to its rightful owner initially fall flat and seem to confirm to her that she’s better off staying away from other people. However, when, with the help of a neighbour, she finally finds Dominique Bretodeau (Maurice Bénichou), the feeling of wellbeing she gains from reuniting him with a relic from his childhood convinces her to perform further acts of kindness. Amélie seems to know exactly what is missing from the lives of others and takes pleasure in putting things right – this sometimes involves dishing out vigilante justice the likes of which Matilda Wormwood would be proud of – but when it comes to her own life, she lacks the courage and certainty to take the risks required to secure her happiness. Thankfully her friends Lucien (Jamel Debbouze), a kind-hearted ‘wizard’ with a secret knack for fauvist painting, and Raymond (Serge Merlin), who is confined to his home by brittle, glass-like bones, give Amélie the push she needs, reminding us that the good you put into the world is returned to you.
The warmth of this story is reflected in the tonality of the film, which is saturated in a yellow-orange glow achieved through filters and patinas. This, combined with a palette of reds and greens conveys Jeunet’s distinct style. A similar range of tones characterises his other films – look at Delicatessen (1991), for example – a simple detail which distances his films slightly from the everyday. Amélie isn’t magic realism, but it isn’t quite real either. While everything that happens is within the realm of the possible, it takes place in Jeunet’s own universe, where everything is just-so, jewelled with quirky characters and moments of perfect synchronicity, such as two wine glasses dancing on a tablecloth in the wind.
It took me a while to figure out why I appreciated The Half-Blood Prince (2009) so much more than the other films in the Harry Potter franchise (bear with me here). I felt a deeper personal connection with the film even though the book hadn’t particularly stood out against the others for me. It seemed more beautiful than the others in a way which I felt was important, a way which made me ache slightly. This made sense to me finally when I realised that it was filmed by Bruno Debonnel, who worked on Amélie. Like Jeunet, Debonnel favours techniques which make his work stand out; they draw the viewer into another world so closely that it seems to embrace you. Pay careful attention to the lighting in Amélie. Debonnel almost always uses bright, heavily diffused lighting, so that there is depth and there are no harsh planes of light and shadow. He also lights the actors in focus with great care, indirectly – usually from a slight side angle – so that they appear subtly brighter than their surroundings without appearing to be out of place. He takes close shots, changing his lens to suit the face of the actor he is focusing on. All these efforts create a sense of intimacy with the subject of the shot, drawing us in like the face of a loved one amongst strangers. Debonnel’s craftsmanship extends far beyond what I address here, I encourage you to study his work closely.
Jeunet favours a particular cinematographer and actors for good reason; Amélie is a film carefully crafted by all involved to appear as though it speaks personally to the viewer. Jeunet’s style may give Amélie an otherworldliness, but it is one we are drawn into rather than made distant from. We are never made to feel that perfection of this sort is out of reach. Rather, we feel that our lives, if we reach out to others, have the potential to be as extraordinary as Amélie’s.