Rated R - Running Time: 2:02 - Released 11/2/01

A fun and energetic frolic through the city of light, Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain is a delightful film about romance, poetic justice, and the satisfaction one receives in the act of helping others, all seen through the big, brown eyes of a quirky young girl with an irrepressibly optimistic disposition and a penchant for subterfuge. The only other film I've seen directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet was 1997's Alien: Resurrection; this film couldn't be any more different in tone, style, or subject matter. Jeunet and his co-writer, Guillaume Laurant, have created a story as light and fluffy as a soufflé, and just as satisfying, and their fortune at finding actress Audrey Tautou (especially since their first choice was Emily Watson) couldn't have been more apropos. Tautou captures the innocence, joie-de-vivre, and even the delightful naiveté you notice me using all these French words?

Amélie is in French, of course; the delight of that language was re-awakened in me as I read the subtitles and fitted them to the dialogue, making ancient connections in my mind recalling the days when I used to study it. The story begins with the birth (actually, the conception) of Amélie Poulain, first played by 6-year-old Flora Guiet, whose joyful charm nicely presages what the character will come to be. Through a voiceover narration by André Dussollier (which continues throughout the film), we learn of Amélie's strange and solitary upbringing "between an iceberg and a neurotic," referring to her emotionless father, played by Rufus, and twitchy mother (Lorella Cravotta), respectively. Largely denied of friends and family interaction, Amélie learns to rely on her imagination for entertainment, and develops a whimsical sense of adventure that will be put to use on an important day in her young adult life, August 30, 1997, the day Lady Di was killed. Amélie finds a 40-year-old box of toys hidden inside the wall of her apartment, and decides to search out its owner. If the result is positive, she will dedicate herself to helping others, like a Parisian superheroine in a size 6 dress. If not, she says, "too bad."

After some rather amusing misunderstandings and much searching, she finds Dominique Bretodeau, the toy owner (Maurice Bénichou). His reunion with his childhood mementos is indeed an emotional and rewarding experience for Amélie, and so she begins her quest. Devising all sorts of clever ruses and secretive experiments, she helps a co-worker (Isabelle Nanty) and a customer (Dominique Pinon) find love at the café where she works, gives her reclusive, art-loving neighbor (Serge Merlin) a new lease on life, introduces a sense of wanderlust to her aging and widowed father, and helps a sweet but slow-witted grocer's boy (Jamel Debbouze) avenge the abuses of his unpleasant employer (Urbain Cancelier). But her commitment to helping others also takes her life in an unexpected direction when she meets a young man named Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz), who, despite the fact that he works in a porn shop, intrigues her with his habit of collecting discarded photo-booth pictures. When Nino leaves his album full of anonymous head shots behind one day, Amélie follows him, not knowing that this selfless act will change her life forever.

Although I am a great fan of Emily Watson, I have to admit I'm glad her deal to play Amélie fell through, because I daresay Audrey Tautou is perfect for the role. Her black, piercing, Audrey Hepburn eyes and whimsical delivery bring Amélie to life in a way I can't imagine from anyone else. Director Jeunet successfully showcases the romance of Paris while being unafraid to show its darker sides as well. His use of fast- and slow motion, along with his ability to blend humor with tenderness, provides an exquisite testament to the unpredictable but ultimately deep, loving character Amélie is. Très bien. ****½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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