"Amelie" is what happens when a filmmaker with nasty habits tries to make nice. It's very much of a sometime thing.
The filmmaker is Frenchman Jean-Pierre Jeunet, responsible for the distinctly unpleasant trio of "Alien: Resurrection," "The City of Lost Children" and "Delicatessen" (the last two with collaborator Marc Caro). "I suddenly realized that I'd never made a truly positive film," Jeunet has explained. "At this stage in my life, in my career, I wanted to make a sweet film, one that makes people dream, which gives them pleasure."
This is all very nice, even laudable. The problem is, just as Tina Turner explains in "Proud Mary" that she's frankly incapable of doing "anything nice and easy," Jeunet doesn't really have the sensibility to make the homage to the classic 1930s and '40s romantic celebrations of the little people of Paris that this is clearly intended to be.
If those French films were poetic and affectionate, "Amelie" features an aggressive, in-your-face romanticism that's noticeably lacking in genuine warmth. While its story of lonely misfits searching for love has appealing moments, more often it turns into an overbearing fable overburdened with fake \o7 joie de vivre.\f7
The problem starts with Jeunet's jittery visual style, his penchant for busy, speeded-up camerawork (including frequent zoom-ins on characters) combined with a passion for slightly surreal, occasionally off-putting imagery. For better or worse, this is a film that will not leave you alone, that is irritatingly insistent on pushing its hollow charm as if it were the real thing.
Despite this, "Amelie" has been a genuine phenomenon in France, both critically and at the box office, for reasons that won't necessarily be as potent in this country. For one thing, the film appeals to a streak of cultural meanness that may be more French than American, and its burlesquing of any number of standard French characters probably won't have the same resonance over here.
The key to "Amelie's" success, however, should have wide appeal, and that is the performance of its charmer of a star, Audrey Tautou. Winner of a Cesar for her work as the youngest beautician in "Venus Beauty Institute," the gifted Tautou plays Amelie as a kind of ultimate pixie, complete with impish smile and huge, ever-twinkling brown eyes.
Jeunet's film (which he co-wrote with Guillaume Laurant) opens with a brief look at Amelie's childhood, "raised by a neurotic and an iceberg" in a home so bleak a pet goldfish continually attempts suicide. All that makes Amelie so lonely that she retreats deeper and deeper into a fantasy life.
As an adult, Amelie works as a waitress in a Montmartre cafe called the Two Windmills that's filled with customary types: the world-weary patroness, a hypochondriac cigarette vendor, another waitress' hyper-jealous suitor, and so on.
Amelie's apartment house is also exclusively populated by excessive characters. There's the glass man (Serge Merlin), a shut-in with fragile bones who repaints a celebrated Renoir painting every year. There's a weepy concierge (Yolande Moreau), still mourning a husband who ran off to South America with his girlfriend, and Collignon (Urban Cancellier), a dyspeptic grocer who mistreats his long-suffering assistant.
Amelie's quasi-ordinary life changes one morning when she discovers a small box of childhood treasures in her apartment, hidden there by a small boy some 40 years ago. She determines to return the cache to its rightful owner and rededicates her life to becoming a doer of increasingly complex good deeds for the downtrodden and woebegone.
But fixing other people's messy lives is also an excuse for Amelie to neglect her own. So even when she meets Nino (actor-director Mathieu Kassovitz), a fellow lonely recluse who spends his days re-assembling torn up and discarded snapshots from train station photo booths, she flies from this potential romance at every turn. Not that it does her any good.
Because Jeunet and company are working from time-tested models, this sounds quite appealing, and at times "Amelie" is as advertised. But in general this film thinks it's doing things it's not. Its spirit is as mocking as it is celebratory, and its frozen heart is most engaged when its heroine takes sadistic revenge on an unpleasant character. "Fifty million Frenchmen can't be wrong" was a popular sentiment among American soldiers during World War I, but times have changed. In this day and age, maybe they can.
MPAA rating: R, for sexual content. Times guidelines: The scenes of sexuality are brief and comic.
Audrey Tautou: Amelie
Mathieu Kassovitz: Nino
Rufus: Raphael Poulain
Serge Merlin: Dufayel
Yolande Moreau: Madeline Wallace
An MMC Independent GmbH. Victoires Productions, Tapioca Films, France 3 Cinema production, released by Miramax. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Producer Claudie Ossard. Screenplay Guillaume Laurant, Jean-Pierre Jeunet.. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. Editor Herve Schneid. Costumes Madeline Fontaine. Music Yann Tiersen. Production design Aline Bonetto. Running time: 2 hours.
Exclusively at the Royal Theater, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd, West L.A., (310) 477-5581.