Monday, February 9, 2009
It's rare to see true whimsy in cinema. People like to cite Wes Anderson as one of its purveyors, but I find his films too calculated to be truly whimsical. Be Kind Rewind had some whimsy, but squandered it in a narrative that never meshed and only clicked in short bursts here and there in the middle of plodding boredom. Perhaps that's the only way whimsy can really manifest itself on-screen: any full-length film employing flights of fancy will inevitably feel too planned to be carefree. If ever there was an exception though, Amélie would be it.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet structures the opening montage of the film as a New Wave homage at break-neck speed, a series of disorienting jump cuts that introduce our heroine: as a child her father, a doctor, never hugged nor kissed her, and only ever touched her during checkups. This caused her heart to beat rapidly in excitement, leading her father to diagnose her with a heart condition. Her mother home-schooled her as a result, until she was killed by a suicidal woman who leapt from Notre Dame and fell on her. This isolated childhood resulted in an heightened imagination.
We then cut to Amélie as a 23-year-old waitress who goes to the movies on Fridays and likes to "notice the little details no one else does." Her life changes, though, when she hears of Princess Diana's death on the news and subsequently finds a box of old memorabilia belonging to her apartment's former owner. She makes a vow: she will return the box to its owner, and if it makes him happy, she will dedicate herself to improving others. She tracks the man down and leaves the box in a phone booth. He discovers it, and a flood of memories come rushing back, bringing tears of longing and joy to the man's eyes as Amélie watches from a distance. The man enters the bar where she sits and talks to the barkeep of a "guardian angel" who just gave him back pieces of his childhood. Well, that seals the deal: Amélie resolves to changes people's lives for the better.
She's played by Audrey Tautou, and Jeunet couldn't have found a more perfect actress for the part if the vision he had in his head somehow manifested itself before him. To see her is to understand why someone would secret her away from the world. An adorable, doe-eyed waif, she walks through the film with a half-smile and a look on her face that says she wants to tell the people she's helping that she's responsible, not for credit or praise but so she can fully share the moment with them.
Amélie works because its heroine never changes the world; she hatches all these complex schemes normally reserved for arch-villains, but she uses them to make someone's life just a bit better. Those she helps are bettered by her assistance, but they'll never know it. On the way home one day, she helps a blind man across the street before dragging him along the marketplace describing everything around them, painting word pictures for a man cut off from the visual beauty around him. He laughs in delight and you can tell that he hasn't smiled in a long time; when they reach the train station Amélie takes off just as quickly as she appeared and the man just stands where she left him with a look of bliss on his face. Later, she plays match-maker with a couple and helps out the bag-boy at a local produce stand by pranking his overbearing boss into vexation.
Though helping these people brings them into her world, the person Amélie cares about most is a young man she spots frequently outside a photo booth in the metro station. Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), an artist, collects all the unwanted photos discarded by customers and creates a sort of collage of failed poses. Amélie, who has never really had a steady boyfriend, is attracted to him but is too shy to show it, until she speaks with one of her neighbors. Dufayel is also an artist, but he stays in his apartment, continuously repatining Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. He holes himself away in his room because he was born with bones so brittle that "a handshake could crush his fingers." When Amélie asks why he paints the same thing over and over again, he responds that he can't get the look of the girl drinking water right. Jeunet never calls attention to it, but the more they speak of this mysterious figure the more we come to realize that the girl stands for Amélie.
In the end, of course, we get a happy ending, but how could we not? The entire two hours play out like one great dream. Now, people tend to define whimsy on cinema in terms of "dancing" or "floating" cameras. Jeunet's camera does not so much float as it does careen; he runs breathlessly through the street of Paris, using smash cuts to whisk us away to some new location. He throws such much on the screen that I'm surprised he never tipped the scales into sensory overload, but instead it grabs you by the hand, not inviting you into its world but dragging you along like Amélie did with the blind fellow. It's not quite perfect, yet Jeunet did everything exactly right: the casting, the editing, the mise-en-scène. I have finally seen whimsy on cinema so gently guided as to seem self-sustaining. If you haven't seen Amélie, your life is incomplete.