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Treating Paris as a City of Light

France is mesmerized by the film 'Amelie,' about a do-gooder in Montmartre. Will the U.S. go for it?


PARIS — This city has a new tourist attraction. A nondescript street-corner bar in the traditional artists' quarter of Montmartre, the Cafe des Deux Moulins may not quite be attracting the crowds that flock to the Eiffel Tower or Notre-Dame, but French visitors are making their pilgrimages there, happy just to take pictures of its exterior if they arrive before opening time.

The reason for their unbridled enthusiasm is that the Cafe des Deux Moulins (the Two Windmills Cafe) is a key location in "Amelie," the most successful--and beloved--French film in years. Purely in box-office terms, it has been an astonishing success for a domestic movie, having grossed around $41 million since opening here earlier this year, easily outstripping this summer's big Hollywood offerings, "Shrek," "Planet of the Apes" and "Jurassic Park 3."

But beyond mere numbers, "Amelie" is a cultural phenomenon. It is the most talked-about film here in years. Commentators of all political shades have analyzed it; President Jacques Chirac asked for a private screening at the Elysee Palace and loved it. Now Miramax is hoping some of that magic rubs off on American audiences when the film opens in Los Angeles and New York on Friday. (The film rolls out nationwide later in November.)

At first glance it seems an unlikely film to wield such influence. An innocuous romantic comedy with fantasy elements, "Amelie" was written and directed by one of France's leading filmmakers, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. After enjoying two worldwide art-house hits, "Delicatessen" (1991) and "City of Lost Children" (1995), which he co-directed with Marc Caro, Jeunet moved temporarily to Hollywood to direct the fourth film in the "Alien" franchise, "Alien: Resurrection" (1997).

"Amelie" stars Audrey Tautou, 23, a striking, dark-haired French beauty with big, plaintive eyes who has elicited critical comparisons with Audrey Hepburn and Juliette Binoche. Tautou's Amelie is an oddball character with a strange childhood: When she was young, her mother was killed by a suicidal tourist from Quebec who fell from the roof of Notre-Dame, her father developed a strange affection for garden gnomes, and she retreated into a fantasy world. (All these events are filmed at breakneck speed and accompanied by a droll voice-over, forming a prelude to the film.)

As an adult, working as a waitress in the Deux Moulins, Amelie hits on her life's mission: spreading happiness around Montmartre. She devises complex schemes of random kindness to cheer up neighbors and strangers. She also discreetly pursues Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), a shy young man who works part time in a sex shop and on a ghost-train ride at a fair; his hobby is collecting portraits discarded from photo booths at rail stations. This quirky, upbeat little story is set exclusively in Paris, and Jeunet has effectively created a cinematic love letter to the city. It looks ravishing.

"It's a Paris of dreams," mused Jeunet, 46, over breakfast at a chic brasserie on the Champs-Elysees. "It's not realistic. It was a Paris I had in my head. When I first came to Paris, I was 20, and I saw Paris just like this." He spread his arms wide to indicate the opulent surroundings.

"When I was in Los Angeles making 'Alien: Resurrection,' I had to stay 20 months, and I missed it. I kept thinking, 'Ah! Paris, Paris!' I wanted to make a film about it. But I had a fake Paris in mind, an idealized Paris."

His affectionate portrait of the city is among the reasons Jeunet cites for the film's success. And the others? "First, everyone needs a positive story," he said. "Every human being has something good inside. It's rare [in film] to talk about those good things inside....It's easier and fashionable to talk of violence and guns."

Jeunet also believes audiences like "Amelie" because he has inserted into the story sequences involving small, pleasurable things in his life: goldfish, garden gnomes, skipping stones across water, plunging one's hand into a sackful of grain, cracking the surface of creme brulee with the back of a spoon.

Even so, Jeunet is amazed by the success of his film, which in France has the longer title "Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulain." "For me, it was a small French film," he noted, smiling. "I wanted to have the freedom to work with my friends, in my own language, with French actors. It was so important for me to tell this story. I wanted to make a cheap film, and in fact the budget was $10 million. That's not cheap in France, but not huge either."

Jeunet has had an extraordinary response from the public in the form of letters and e-mails: "I keep meeting people who tell me they have seen the film five times, nine times, 12 times." He was amazed that President Chirac would personally ask to see the film: "When it was over, he came up to me, punched me on the shoulder and said, ' Magnifique , man!"'

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