Amélie brings life to the unseen.
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Talk with someone about a piece of art, and they’ll tell you about themselves. Let me share my thoughts on Amélie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film from 2001.
When Raymond Dufayel, the putatively glass-boned artist who’s been serially recreating Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party every year for the last 20, engages neighbor Amélie Poulain to puzzle out why he can never get one of its female partiers right, she has to know what he’s getting at, right? The first time they meet and he describes this elusive girl with a glass of water to her, she’s holding a cup of wine he’s just poured and either doesn’t get or doesn’t want to get that he’s talking about her. Their conversations throughout are similarly cagey, him trying to tease out her epiphanies without resorting to actually coming out and saying things, her responding in ways she has to know reveal more about herself than the subject at hand. Like all Jeunets, the film is a Rube Goldberg machine inside a Rube Goldberg machine, where each character uses the most elaborate tactics to express themselves in the simplest ways. At times you might want to shake some sense into them all – protagonists and filmmaker alike – but for fear your and their brittle bones might break.
André Breton famously titled his 1929 novel Nadja after a real-life woman who adopted the name because it was the beginning of the Russian word for hope, “but only the beginning”1 Amélie derives from the first half of the word ameliorate – to make better; by chance or by cunning, the film’s full title, The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain, is a callback to Restoration-era fashions in titling. Appropriately, her character spends the film trying to improve others’ lives when it’s hers in most need, banking on the principle, I guess, that in this dilapidated machine doing one will accomplish the other. When you name your work, whether novel or film, after a person, that means they’re one and the same; so Jeunet’s film is Amélie and Amélie is his film (it begins with her conception), full of each other’s naïve misgivings and frustrating subterfuges but impossible not to love all the same. She is our need to go on even if it means manufacturing the reasons we do, to believe our actions matter and that the good we put out into the world will come back to us, if only because, What’s the alternative? Part of the reason the film exasperates us when it does is that doing good is complicated.
There’s âme – soul – in Amélie, but also a lie. There was a primal grift early in her development that caused the girl to overestimate her agency in the world. The defining episode in her life wasn’t her mother’s death when she was nine and a tourist who threw herself off the roof of Notre Dame chose her to land on, nor was it the crash that took Princess Di’s life 27 days after Amélie’s 24th birthday, nor the discovery that same day of the tobacco-tin time capsule revealed by a dislodged wainscot that prompts her campaign to act as corporeal angel to a parade of friends and acquaintances, but a neighbor’s mischievous (if short-sighted) planting of the notion in her head that she magically affected outcomes when snapping a picture of a car the moment before it, too, crashed. So we may be forgiven for expecting the breathless litany of factoids prologuing the film to be setting us up for a “butterfly theory” scenario of cause and effect, beginning as it does with a narrator informing us of the beats per second of a fly’s wings and resolving in the heroine’s conception at the moment an old man strikes a deceased friend’s name from his address book. If not concatenation it at least suggests a compensation and balance. It’s this expectation, this desire to breed order from chaos, that both deranges and offers Amélie a reason for going on. There was a primal rift, too, between truth and reality, lived experience and perceived, and it resulted in the girl’s sainted misconception of how accident works.
Before getting too far into the theoretical, let’s step back and talk about the cogs and gears of Amélie; Jeunet is nothing if not a meticulous filmmaker, his carefulness a testament to something in this random universe. (Like all Jeunets, there’s not so much of a plot to describe as a series of incidents and relations.) That tobacco tin, left by former eight-year-old Dominique Bretodeau, mirrors the scrapbook of four-for-a-dollar pictures Amélie’s enamored keeps and which finally brings them together. Her lovelorn father’s garden gnome, planted in the shrine he builds for his wife, takes human form in runty stalker Joseph, who hangs out at the Two Windmills Café where Amélie waits tables, pining in his own way for the colleague who spurned him. The girl’s fateful Instamatic reappears as a Photomat where her pursuit of similarly daft Nino (archetypal “Boy”) begins. The homicidal suicide that took her mother’s life replays a goldfish that hurled itself from its bowl early in Amélie’s girlhood, causing père Poulain to fish it out from under the oven like Amélie the time capsule behind the baseboard and Nino his photoscraps from under that booth; when the fish is released to a nearby stream, it reprises the enterprising sperm cell that begat Amélie herself. More than these other repetitions, though, is the car crash, suicide, Di-icide, and similar wreck that may or may not have taken her landlady’s inconstant embezzler of a husband as well as the Amélie-confabulated plane crash that brought him back to her. Rather than cause and effect, what the film is finally about is collision. Accident was Amélie’s primal scene, her frustration ever after a grappling with this aberration, a futile battle with the contrived.
The beauty of art is in the similar meeting and playing against each other of likes, opposites, apposites, and incongruities; spurring chemical reactions; metabolizing energies; encouraging reaction formations meant to drive all these fields and associations toward that one big confrontation, either apocalypse or erotisme, collapse or conception, when the world confounds into one. So when I say I want to tell you my thoughts on Amélie, what I’m saying is I want to throw all these elements together the way I throw myself at the film, hoping it’ll either destroy or fall in love with me, or, best, both. I want to be that sperm that found the waiting egg – waiting, to envelop and absorb, bind and obliviate – so we can create another Amélie altogether, soul and lie in one. With Luncheon of the Boating Party, Jeunet is doing the same through Dufayel, telling us he’s been making the same picture all through his career, its projection of a lost idyll tellingly at odds with the dystopias that’d been his stock-in-trade. Engaging with Amélie is reimagining the future by way of a present that isn’t here yet, a joy that only needs to uncomplicate itself to be released into a world bobsledding toward its own, real dystopia. Amélie is the protein this system needs to catalyze that process.
Unfortunately, as a result of her neighbor’s jest, there was also a primal drift, from active to passive observer, sending Amélie to bingeing TV where she’s in no danger of influencing anyone or anything. Her new relation to the world is something like City of Lost Children’s brain-in-a-jar trying to experience life through other people, or the sinister butcher of Jeunet’s first, Delicatessen, literally living off the flesh of his tenants. (Both films were co-directed by Marc Caro, who parted ways early in the production of Jeunet’s previous, Alien: Resurrection.) So perfectly had the event taken her out of the world that this medium began reflecting her inner world back to her, as when broadcasting a documentary on her fabled life and funeral like some Mother Teresa calling to herself from that fishbowl-CRT to continue making a difference.
By some miracle, a late-night news item on a horse (the English translation of Poulain is foal) escaping its confines to join a team of Tour de France cyclists constitutes a breakthrough in consciousness: a wish-fulfillment fantasy for sleeping Amélie, it becomes angelic encouragement to Dufayel when she takes the next step and leaves a VHS of the marvel at his doorstep. Given their conversations around Luncheon, it also serves as a statement of intent between her and her art-counselor. When she cobbles together a lost love-letter from landlady Wells’s fugitive hubby that absolves Wells’s 27-years’ miserableness, inspired by a newspaper report and set up ransom-note style from the lady’s cache of real letters, she again takes the material of reality and transforms it into a new reality that may redeem the wanting one. She’s not only the putative dreamer of her film, but the dream-mechanism in everybody.
The raison d’être of all Rube Goldbergs is the process. The machine captured in all its belaborment is a comment on and in itself, demonstrating the extent people will go just to make things go. But to what end? To pour a cup of coffee? To wake somebody out of a slumber? The ghost in all these apparatuses is a poltergeist, the spiritual jest not in the triviality of purpose but in the beauty of movement: they’re as much a joke on art and nature as they are on themselves. (The most splendid and exasperating Rubes are the ones whose only purpose is self-perpetuation.). Their final function isn’t an appreciation of the machine as art form but in reminding us of the tortuousness in the mechanisms that produce real life and art together. We do well to pay attention to what they say about us, too.
For my own part, my attraction to Amélie’s subterfuges is a way of recognizing that tendency in myself, and in admiring her intentions I can compliment myself, too, on my own best designs. Imagine I’m the writer Hipolito (somebody put this down on paper), a fringe character in the drama whose visits to the café are so infrequent as to suggest another quirk in the contraption: You could say the reason I’m drawn to this world is to explain how that quote of mine about today’s emotions being the scurf of yesterday’s got blown up on the wall of that street I find myself walking down toward the end. It’s a cousin to scenes in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation a couple years later, when her actor character sees his image writ large on the liquor ads that couldn’t possibly be there yet: a validation that I am seen, despite my sense of myself as failure. I have a function in the machine. Possibly all similarly failed or unknown artists go unrecognized because they thwart themselves with metaphor when simple expression will do – all this reaching for the stars when what will really enable us to “connect,” as E. M. Forster instructed, is a recognition of and focus on things just true.
Or am I Suzanne, the proprietress of the café (like the title Delicatessen) still limping after a trapeze artist I was in love with “dropped” me at the last minute (shades of the Notre Dame suicide) and left one of my legs shorter than the other; that would explain the off-kilter nature of everyone and everything in this world. (And it wouldn’t be the first time love made a gimp of someone.) Done with high-wire acts dependent on luck and others’ timing and dexterity, better to set up your own operation and people it with figures of your own hire and watch them go with only the occasional intervention; sit back and admire the clockwork, as relationships coalesce and dissolve; see them go through your motions while bringing something of themselves in the process; learn a little about yourself in the interaction. (Maybe I am a writer, after all.)
For Jeunet, Amélie’s world reflects his own habit of construction: his plots reflexively take things one step further than most filmmakers’, add one more complication to situations already loaded with attenuation, then add another. His production design is similarly clotted. (He came well into the modern French tradition of the cinéma du look – a description that could apply to most ’80s cinema – with roots in Sternberg, Lola Montès, and Federico Fellini’s relentless tableaux. His films also nod in the direction of fellow former-animator Terry Gilliam in the latter’s more baroque contrivances. Ultimately, the film’s greatest debt is to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1991 The Double Life of Veronique, putting a fabulist spin on Kieślowski’s magical realism.) In sequence after sequence he highlights the laziness of other directors while lending his own work a manic edge that may exhaust a viewer before the ending that seems to elude the both of us a little too long. He comes from a tradition of Surrealism, but the thing with Surrealists is that they can’t by nature resolve things or they would invalidate themselves: they thrive on tension, ambiguity, and delaying tactics. With his insistence on following down each sinew of referential possibility he risks losing you; I bet he has to force himself to quit tinkering and just wrap things up already.
Is he getting at something, then, when he sends his heroine into Amélie-land after the photo-crash incident, the way her father withdraws on the death of his wife, and landlady Wells her husband? Bretodeau, in his estrangement from his daughter and grandson, is in the same bâteau vivre. All of them, like Joseph, Dufayel, and Suzanne, are living in separation from a part of themselves, and it’s keeping them from completion. They’ve become disorganized. In their confused and confusing efforts to reorganize themselves by manufacturing cause and effect in the absence of simple sense, they’re like dreamers trying to operate on the principles of reality in an atmosphere closed off from the connective tissue of reason.
Amélie – movie and person – is the function of mind that makes these connections (the reason so much of it takes place in or turns on the Gare du Nord train station) as often as she avoids them herself, and when she makes the last connection – it’s bliss. She acts as matchmaker not only to woebegone Wells but also sociopathic Joseph and hypochondriac tobacconist Georgette; their seismic bathroom tryst powers the Windmill for more than the ribald half-minute it lasts on-screen. (That the affair doesn’t endure much longer is one of the film’s capitulations to reality, the continuous world’s occasional interruptions of the dream necessary to feed it new material.) Immediately after reuniting Bretodeau with his childhood, she escorts a blind man across the street to the Gare, narrating the people and objects lining the way and their intrigues. Amélie brings life to the unseen. All Dufayel knows of the outside is what he can see through his window, including not only her apartment above but the clockmaker’s timepiece below he has his camcorder keyed to to save him the danger to his fragile digits of winding his own clock. Her inspirited videotapes replace, for their duration, the certainty of time on the old man’s monitor; in turn, he’s her last link to the identity of Bretodeau, enabling the first success of her crusade. The beauty of these connections is far from mysticism, but the wonder of acknowledging we’re part of the web and realizing we can be active participants in the matrix: we make the magic.
Some angels have teeth, too, though, and like the little intrusions of reality, Amélie’s retribution on her mischief-making neighbor – notably rendered by interrupting his TV reception – is one signal she’s no Mother Teresa. (Neither, if you believe Christopher Hitchens, was Mother Teresa.) She takes similar vengeance on greengrocer Collignon for his mistreatment of slow, one-armed deliveryperson Lucien by disordering his regime, replacing his toothpaste with foot cream, and resetting his alarm clock so he opens shop in the dead of night, the result being his loss of mind and leaving Lucien run of the place. (Collignon’s abusiveness was learned from his mother, whose derisive control of her sagely husband leads to Amélie’s first misstep in tracking down Bretodeau.) Her toying with Nino may be another form of cruelty, whether on her part or Jeunet’s it’s hard to tell. She steps into his world to both dis-order and re-order it, to upset his life and solve the mystery of the sundered photos he’s been collecting and recombining in his scrapbook to little revelation.
Not surprisingly, Nino, who grew up near Amélie, is divided, himself. He works two jobs, one in the porno video shop she first tracks him to (contrasting the VHS she leaves with Dufayel and run, like most establishments in the film, by a woman, opposite the evil masculine presences lording over Jeunet’s darker visions). His other job is as a skeleton-suited boogeyman in the funhouse ride she makes first contact in, because first contacts are scary. He serves both Eros and Thanatos, as she does with Bretodeau and Collignon. When his psychic private eye Amélie resolves the enigma of the bald man whose pictures he finds outside the Photomat, it turns out to have nothing to do with the Freudian or mystical confabulations she’d parried with Dufayel – “a consolation against mortality?” a dead man “fixing a portrait for the afterlife” so not to be forgotten? – but the simplest and most functional solution possible while still being a marvel in itself.
It follows that there’s no mention of god in the film, nor in any Jeunet I’ve seen, making the entire conception doubly wondrous but leaving space for the impressionable girl to believe her neighbor when he pins agency on her. (The director’s unfruitful foray into American action-filmmaking with the Alien sequel includes a late, incongruous gesture toward Christianity, purposeful only in its apparent obsolescence in the presence of inhuman feminine fearlessness.) Of course, we both know it was Jeunet coordinating all these things, bringing poignance to the plight of all created characters in works of fiction where they haven’t the capacity for self-awareness. (Until they do.) By inserting himself in Amélie’s world by fashioning it like Rei-monde Dufayel his Luncheon, the director is coaxing something out of the viewer, too, that we might see ourselves in it the same way he teases his truths out of Amélie. So let me encourage you, my reader, to look for and see yourself in my re-creation of this work, and maybe in turn you can tell me why I can never get my own girl right, try as I may and always will.
Focus on Joseph, the troll in Suzanne’s garden, and you’ll see where all this is coming from. He’s the runt of the litter, seen early on muttering conspiracy theories into his Walkman concerning another Windmill waitress, Gina, who understandably threw him over some time before. Each word, each interaction with a customer gets conflated by him into a grand scenario, an intrigue, like the espionage games Amélie shares with her predecessors in Jeunet, a way of building up the plain and mundane into something of import and excitement and a way of disguising the fact that Gina was simply out of his league. His contraption doesn’t collapse when Amélie briefly steers him into a dalliance with Georgette, it only goes into abeyance till he blows even that matchup with his old habits, because that’s how his mind operates. (I wonder if Jeunet knew how close foal was to folle.)
Julia Kristeva says that “he who loves a reflection without knowing that it is his own does not, in fact, know who he is”2 and I’ll own that. I’ve discounted and dishonored the objects of my affection so often and in so many ways you’d think I’d realize I was discounting myself in the bargain. Maybe I’m doing that again, right now. Maybe I’ve been focusing on Amélie when I should be focused on myself. Romance films embody the era they’re conceived in: the most conservative characters represent the status quo, while the object of desire – impetuous, romantic, out of step with the times because they’re not of the times – represent the need or direction society wants to go; where the self wants to go. Love is the possible placed within our grasp, what we do with it a measure of the times we’re in. Finding the right person isn’t so much chemistry or logic as it is sonar, a bat sending signals into the world to have them come back as shapes, images, figures: a sense that this is what you’re looking for; go toward it.
Nick Paumgarten says “it takes energy to change habits and alter circumstances”3 We all could use a little Amélie. She’s the energy Bergson, Freud, Reich, and Breton wrote about, “that green fuse” that powers all growth. The kind that would scatter Skittles down a hallway just to see people’s reactions, lights a dancer’s smile in Golden Age musicals, makes beautiful things for its own amusement – the kind you’ll always remember, and always know when you see it. There was a primal gift, too, in Amélie, and it was this talent for making things not just go, but happen. We should lay toys at her feet in tribute, gather bike tassels to form her crown. With her blood in our veins our vicious circles would bend into a heart; with her tongue in our mouths we could all sing as one.
Breton said of his Nadja, When I am near her I am nearer things which are near to her.4 Even a wretch like me knows that when something like that graces you with her presence you pay attention, you pay close attention, and when something in your life isn’t right and you find yourself caught in your own machine you pay even closer attention, that this work of art may show you what you and your manias are blinding you to again. Think on these things; study them; absorb yourself. Remember to let her into your heart. Then you can start to make it better.
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All images are screenshots from the film.