The quirky french comedy amÉlie (LE Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain), nominated for five Academy Awards after its release in 2001, has already developed a cult following in Paris. Charmed by the title character, with her Audrey Hepburn eyes, admirers of the feel-good film patronize with gustatory glee "The Two Windmills," an actual Montmartre establishment (Cafe des Deux Moulins) where Amelie waited tables and played matchmaker. Tourists reverentially walk the ramps and stairs up the hill to Sacre-Coeur, remembering the blue arrows Amélie painted for Nino, her yet-unacknowledged lover, directing him to a panorama-scope focused on her actions below. (For an account of the commercialization of Amélie, see Elaine Sciolino, "Cinematography Meets Geography in Montmartre," New York Times 10 Aug. 2003.)
While commercialization of film-location sites is nothing new—The Sound of Music tour in Austria dates back to the 1960s—more disturbing is the newly-developed line of Amélie-themed accessories, a canvas purse trimmed in leather going for $354, a price that the film's Amélie could not afford. Amélie's character is delightful precisely because, rather than accruing material objects, she uses her money and time making others happy: returning an old tin box, filled with childhood treasures, to its aging owner; animatedly describing the sights of Montmartre for a blind man; forging a letter to convince a morose woman that her husband, before he died, regretted abandoning her; "publishing" a sentence from the oft-rejected novel of a despairing author.
In fact, until she consummates her relationship with Nino, Amelie's primary joy comes not from consumerism but from skipping stones on a river. This does not slow down people today who shop in her honor, displaying their commodified Amélie paraphernalia as did medieval churches their saints' relics. The items become totemic, owners assuming that the qualities of the individual associated with the object might accrue to the handler. After all, it's a lot easier to mystify material objects than to act like a saint—or like Amélie. It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that Parisian communists have denounced the Amélie phenomenon. But their reason is surprising. Rather than decry the reduction to commodity of Amélie's beneficent modes of production, they have critiqued the film itself, saying that it portrays a sanitized picture of 1990s Paris. According to them, Amélie has glossed over images of poverty and filth that stain the real Montmartre where the movie was filmed. This criticism seems only slightly less absurd than if PETA were to protest violence to fish in the recent hit cartoon Finding Nemo.
For the fun of Amélie is largely due to its cartoon-like cinematography. The opening shot establishes that this film is not attempting to sustain the illusion of "realism." Intensely yellow, the shot anticipates the yellow and green filters employed throughout, giving the film an Oz-like aura. When the filters are muted, vivid primary hues enliven the mise-en-scene, reminiscent of the comic book colors from the 1990 Dick Tracy. The illusion of "realism" is also broken during dream sequences in which pig-lamps speak and photographs converse, as well as when actions are sped-up through trick photography. Furthermore, several times Amélie defies the "fourth wall" as she stares into the camera and ostensibly into the eyes of the film audience, making viewers complicit with the illusions she creates.
This, then, is no Montmartre for Marxists who claim to see with clarity the ideology that blinds most others. The film instead has the feel of magical realism, with bizarre incidents seemingly unexplainable—until a beneficent power, usually in the form of Amélie, is shown to be behind it all. For example, Amélie's father mysteriously receives photographs of his plaster garden gnome posed in multiple cities around the world. Though we saw Amélie abscond with the gnome, we know she has not flown around the world to pose it. Only by the end of the film do we realize that a flight attendant has toted the object to her various destinations and taken the photos. Thus, just as Amélie arranged to send enigmatic pictures to her father, the makers of Amélie arranged to send an enigmatic picture to us: a film with more going on under the surface than might be readily apparent.
Quite appropriately, pictures of all kinds, shapes and sizes recur throughout the film. One of the first illusions we see Amélie as a child create has to do with the television picture of her neighbor. Responding to his cruel lie that a photograph she took with her Instamatic camera caused a car accident, she disconnects his antenna at the most exciting moments of a soccer match, then reconnects it seconds later after the excitement has passed. As an adult, however, Amélie uses television pictures to communicate love, videotaping evocative scenes to cheer a different neighbor, an artist named Raymond. These pictures, real television images from our world, once again blur the line between illusion and reality, because once a "real world" image enters the illusionary world of film, it becomes complicit with the illusion.
Raymond, the artist, also blurs the line between reality and illusion, having painted twenty reproductions of Renoir's famous "Luncheon of the Boating Party" in just so many years. While any reproduction is a mere illusion of authenticity, Raymond's current illusion serves to illuminate the authentic emotions of Amélie. For she reveals her love for a young man by telling the artist what one girl in the painting is "actually" thinking— which are her own thoughts.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN THE GIRL IN THE Renoir painting, who is holding a glass, and the girl in our Amélie film is made explicit when Raymond addresses Amélie, who at that moment is holding a glass of water, saying "The only person I still can't capture is the girl with the glass of water. She's in the middle, yet she's outside." He then describes the Renoir female with attributes the film has aligned with Amélie: an introvert who never played with other children in her youth. Mysteriously, Raymond, a hermit artist who had never before talked to Amélie, reveals her character through his art—as though in fulfillment of Picasso's famous aphorism, "Art is the lie that tells the truth about things." And perhaps the "lie" of this film, so reviled by Parisian communists, tells some truth about things.
In Raymond's painting, the truth of Amélie is mediated through the glass, and on the screen, the truth of Amélie is mediated through a pronounced glass motif—made explicit when Raymond tells Amélie that he is called "The Glass Man," his bones so brittle that he dare never leave the apartment. Not liking to wind his clocks, he tells time by aiming a video camera through his window onto a store-front clock below, sending the image to his television screen. The temporal exigencies of life are thus distanced from him through multiple layers of glass. Indeed, time does not affect his artwork; his twenty reproductions look exactly the same over a twenty-year period. His isolation is echoed by that of Amélie, who often looks at him through binoculars aimed through two window-panes: both hers and his. Glass seems to signal an impediment to living life to its fullest, a barrier to expressions of love.
GLASS AS IMPEDIMENT IS SIGNALED EARLY IN the film with the attempts of Amélie's goldfish to escape the limits of its tiny glass bowl. Resulting from bravura leaps out of its container, the fish is emancipated into a larger realm of existence as Amélie's mother pours it into a stream, throwing the glass bowl in afterwards. Amélie, however, is left all the more lonely, limited to her isolated play with glass. Soon after the opening credits we see the six-year-old entertaining herself by vibrating the rim of a wine glass, sucking liquid up a straw from a water glass, wearing big joke glasses, and, most telling of all, flattening her face against a window pane, as though wanting to break through to the other side—like her fish.
When, as an adult, she plays cupid between a man and woman, equally lonely (and also neurotic), she notices how all the glassware in The Two Windmills quivers, vibrating on the edge of breakage as the couple consummate their passion in the cafe restroom. We see the woman's hand pressing against the opaque glass of the door as did the hand of Rose in the coital scene of that ultimate illusion of reality, the film Titanic. In both films the love becomes shipwrecked, although in Amélie, the less "realistic" film, the wreck is attributable to what ruins many human relationships: narcissism and suspicion.
The 23-year old Amélie herself has never experienced romantic love. In a whimsical shot early in the film, she stares from her bed into the high angle lens of the camera as a faceless lumbering male thrusts on top of her; barely suppressing surprised laughter, her eyes seem to suggest, "Now, isn't this a silly situation!" After that, we see that the only companion in her bed is a remote control, as though to say human intimacy has been as remote for her as the images mediated through the glass of her television screen.
Later, however, as Amélie walks into the metro, she sees Nino outside a self-serve photograph booth, a song about love following her footsteps. We discover that he, like Amelie, has difficulty making human contact; rather than directly interacting with individuals, Nino collects images of their footprints, recordings of their laughter, and photographs they have discarded.
Just as the people Amélie helps never see her engendering the beauty in their lives, people never really see Nino entertaining children on the Ghost Train at the Fair, for he is disguised as a skeleton, something dead to the flesh. He is also dead to flesh in his other job: working at a porn shop, where he responds to the sex toys and erotic dancers with an insouciance similar to that of Amélie with her lumbering bed partner.
The parallel between them is confirmed by a split-screen flashback to their childhood: in an effort to make contact with an unresponsive world, both are standing in a window reflecting sunlight off the glass of a mirror.
IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE ADULT AMÉLIE FIRST SEES Nino, he chases a man from the photograph booth, accidentally dropping an album filled with other people's discarded, often torn up, photos which he has assembled with care. Amélie keeps the album, becoming obsessed with the identity of both the album maker—Nino—and a man whose picture appears repeatedly throughout the photographic collection. She arranges for Nino to meet her at The Two Windmills, but once he is there she loses nerve and fails to identify herself.
Her emotional barrier is symbolized by a glass partition that separates his booth from where she stands behind him. When he turns to look at her, she begins to write menu items on the glass, thus adding unspoken words to the barrier between them. We begin to wonder whether she will ever have unmediated access to the reality of love.
Her actions are echoed by Nino at his place of business. Wanting to see if his female co-worker can take his place at the sex-shop counter, he writes a note against a window as she bumps and grinds behind it, performing for customers who have paid to look through the glass barrier surrounding her. Her actions, the tawdry illusion of eroticism, have nothing to do with real love. Nino, however, like Amélie, seems to desire love without the glass.
And they get it, eventually consummating their love without ever exchanging words. First, however, the artist Raymond must exhort Amélie by way of his painting, commenting upon Renoir's girl with the glass: "I think it's time she took a real risk." When Amélie continues to avoid direct interaction with Nino, Raymond sends her a video image of himself saying, "Amélie, your bones aren't made of glass. You can take life's knocks. If you let this chance go by, eventually your heart will become as dry and brittle as my skeleton."
Inspired by this message, she opens her door to Nino, a man who, we sense, will never again imitate a skeleton. Their discovery of love is a recovery of life, anticipated by their discovery that the man stalking the photograph booths, whose discarded pictures Nino has been collecting, is not someone obsessed with death: "The mystery man wasn't a ghost or a man scared of aging, but simply the repairman."
Amélie, then, who has been repairing everyone else's dreams, gets to be photographed fulfilling her own. As she embraces Nino in her apartment, Raymond watches, through binoculars, their lovely shadow on the curtains while his apprentice, Lucien, videotapes it, feeding the image onto the television screen which once only recorded the deadly slow passage of time. As the two withdraw their voyeuristic gaze through their mediating glass lenses, Lucien's camera tilts down to a table, feeding the image of an empty water glass onto both Raymond's television screen and our movie screen. We are made quite aware that the girl has gone beyond her glass.
While some might see this happy ending as simplistically re-inscribing the Hollywood cliche that "ya gotta take a risk for love," Amélie provides a closing montage that undercuts convention. Following a shot of Amélie's rumpled sheets, we are given brief takes of people she has helped: the despondent writer, seeing his prose "published" as graffiti on a wall, ebulliently leaps over a barrier in the road; the man who "discovers" his long lost tin box has taken the initiative to meet his estranged grandson; Raymond, rather than reproducing another Renoir, finally paints a "luncheon" in his own style; Amélie's reclusive father follows the lead of his garden gnome and sets off on an international journey.
Instead of being indignant, then, Parisian communists should be pleased with this highly successful low-budget film, for its content subverts an economy of exchange based on capitalistic self-interest. Amélie blesses others not in order to garner gifts in return; she receives precisely that which she has worked hard to give away. As a famous exemplar of self-emptying love once put it, "The last shall be first."
Crystal Downing teaches film and literature at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.