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Posted by Katherine Putnam on February 4th, 2012

“Without you, today’s emotions would be the scurf of yesterday’s. “

I’ve almost missed the deadline! Curse you, pesky cold! But I will not falter so early in my resolution. Oh no. Let us forge onward into a review of the first foreign film of the bunch, Amélie. (Vive la France!)

“You mean she would rather imagine herself relating to an absent person than build relationships with those around her?”

“With a prompter in every cellar window whispering comebacks, shy people would have the last laugh.”

There are many things to love about Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film. I could talk about the superbly awkward, poignant, charming characters that Audrey Tautou and Mathieu Kassovitz portrayed in Amélie and Nino. I could talk about the quirky supporting cast. I could talk about how crisp the editing was: how every cut, every change in angle or scene reinforced the offbeat, fantastical-daydream feel of the movie. I could talk about all of these things, but I must make my main focus the obvious harmony of visual details in the film. I suppose “harmony of visual details” doesn’t make much sense. I’m not sure how to sum up what I mean in a pat little phrase. What I mean is that it is unmistakably obvious that the director (not to mention all involved with the film) were incredibly intentional about the look of the film, down to every last detail.

But first, a little context regarding the plot.

The movie follows a young dreamer, Amélie, as she seeks to improve the lives of those around her. She is a quirky young woman with a vivid imagination. As the movie progresses we, and Amélie, realize that she uses both her imagination and her goal of helping others as a way to keep people at a distance. She helps others, but does not necessarily form relationships with them. Along the way she encounters the equally dreamy Nino and must decide whether she will be brave and pursue a relationship with him or if she will continue to hide within her daydreams.

One of the many ways the film intentionally pursues this “harmony of visual details” is in the way it constantly reinforces the storytelling through the setting and sets. The film is set in Paris but the film does not necessarily show us the Paris we know, instead it shows us Amélie’s Paris. Everything in the film works to transport us from the Paris (or rather, the world) we know to Paris as it appears through the filter of Amélie’s imagination.

We see this in two ways.

The first is in the deliberate color pallette of the film. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has stated that the extensive use of reds, yellows, and greens in the film was inspired by the work of artist Juarez Machado. While those more familiar with the artist’s work would be able to extrapolate more from the connection, my brief investigation of his paintings made it clear, at the very least, that his work contains some of the same offbeat whimsy present in Amélie. Moreover, the colors are not merely a run of the mill, reoccurring motif, sprinkled here and there throughout the film to highlight key objects, characters or elements. No. They are the overwhelming primary colors of the film. Almost everything–interior sets, exterior settings, costumes, props, tiny set dressing details–contains one of the three colors. This is not to say that no other colors appear in the film. However, the predominant use of red, yellow, and green colors enough of the film to make what we see subtly, yet substantially different. I was unaware of the deliberate color choices when I first watched the film. After reading IMDb’s trivia about Amélie in preparation for re-watching the movie, I was able to finally put a finger on the slightly dreamlike feeling I had experienced during my first watching.

The second way we can pinpoint the deliberate set dressing/set preparation is the cleanliness of the scenes. According to IMDb, “whenever this film was shot on location, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and the crew would clean the area of debris, grime, trash and graffiti, so that the film would match his fantasy more so.” This included beautifying city streets, a giant train station, as well as other locations used throughout the film. I, having been in train stations in Europe, cannot begin to imagine the amount of work it must have taken to make one appear…not debris ridden and grimy. Yet, I can’t deny that their work paid off. The cleaned-up version of the locations better fits Amélie’s romantic fantasy of the world and better enables us to lose ourselves temporarily in that fantasy: where cellar-window prompters provide us with quippy comebacks, where television programming provides commentary on our lives, and where paintings and lamps discuss our foibles.

In an attempt to balance praise with criticism, I’ll admit that a movie or rather, character, like Amélie will not appeal to everyone. I say this mainly because the character of Amélie falls into that category of female characters that writer Nathan Rabin calls “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” Mindy Kaling summed this romcom archetype up quite well, stating:

“This girl can’t be pinned down and may or may not show up when you make concrete plans with her. She wears gauzy blouses and braids. She likes to dance in the rain and she weeps uncontrollably if she sees a sign for a missing dog or cat. She might spin a globe, place her finger on a random spot, and decide to move there. The Ethereal Weirdo appears a lot in movies, but nowhere else. If she were from real life, people would think she was a homeless woman and would cross the street to avoid her. But she is essential to the male fantasy that even if a guy is boring he deserves a woman who will find him fascinating and perk up his dreary life by forcing him to go skinny-dipping in a stranger’s pool.” (You can view Kaling’s full article here.)

Although the character of Amélie is more than this witty description, the archetype she falls under does tend to annoy or alienate some viewers, due to the fact that this character type bears little to no resemblance to any female…ever. However, because Amélie herself hid behind her own fantasies from a young age (due to the quirks and foibles of her parents and the effect they had on her childhood), it makes more sense for her to become a bit of a fantasy version of herself in order to fit into the world she’s created.

(Yes, I realize I’ve jumped back to praise.)

What I think serves to set this character apart from the other Manic Pixie Dream Girls of the silver screen is the fact that her MPDG status is clearly shown to be a somewhat cowardly defense mechanism. The Glass Man frequently challenges her (through reoccurring discussions of a girl in a Renoir painting) on her retreats into daydreams, and by the end of the film Amélie must chose to step out of her fantasies to interact with Nino, risking rejection in order to gain something infinitely more valuable than a daydream.

Amélie is a quirky foreign film that may not be for everyone. But if you like a slightly fantastical romance, and either parle francais or don’t mind reading subtitles, then I recommend giving Amélie a try. It’s beautiful, it’s whimsical, and–in it’s own way–challenging.

NEXT TIME: American Dreamz

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