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Enchanted Search for the Heart of 'Amelie'


PARIS — A new breed of tourist has invaded the hilltop urban village of Montmartre here: the "Amelie" fan.

This particular species wandering the congested, winding streets has roots all over the world, especially in Europe and Japan. Its members have a common trait: They adore the movie "Amelie."

The story of their pilgrimage began last April with the release of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film, which is up for five Academy Awards this month, including best foreign language film.

Titled in French "The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain," it's about a sullen, lonely young waitress, played by Audrey Tautou, whose life turns upside down when she discovers a child's secret box hidden in her bathroom floor and goes looking for its owner, now an adult.

Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 13, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
"Amelie"--The credit for a photo of Cafe des Deux Moulins in Southern California Living on Tuesday was incorrect. It was taken for The Times by Carmen Mendez.

From that moment of discovery, Amelie also makes a most un-Parisian decision: She will dedicate herself to intervening, sometimes mischievously and intrusively, in people's lives to make them happy. The enchantment of this simple premise, which is presented with subtle, tender humor, is what's drawing devotees to the places where the film was shot.

"The ones who come here are looking for the joie de vivre that she left in their minds," says Monique Labbe, co-owner of the Cafe des Deux Moulins, the real-life establishment where much of the movie is set.

Labbe's family-run cafe is located at the corner of Lepic and Cauchois streets, a block from the fabled Moulin Rouge cabaret and below the steps of the Sacre-Coeur church. With its large copper bar, a few tables on the sidewalk and a cigarette counter, the Cafe des Deux Moulins--named after two nearby windmills that have survived urbanization--doesn't seem much different from the other cafes lining the sidewalks.

But a detail catches the eye: the big "Amelie" poster covering the back wall. The cafe, which is the heroine's workplace, has become an outpost of Amelie-mania.

In addition to celebrating Montmartre, "Amelie" created a style, a look and an atmosphere that have become a reference point for journalists, politicians and designers. It is slowly earning a place in the French cultural patrimony.

These days, the French press often describes joyful, lighthearted and happily naive situations as "la Amelie Poulain." The newspaper Liberation recently labeled designer Jean-Paul Gaultier's summer 2002 collection "a mix of Amelie Poulain and French cancan."

Other fashion critics noted the resemblance to Tautou of the first model to hit the catwalk and Gaultier's homage to the cabarets and plazas of postwar Montmartre. Radio and television shows frequently sample Yann Tiersen's soundtrack, which has sold 2.5 million copies.

And politicians of diverse ideologies have praised "Amelie's" spirit of friendship and kindness, saying they wish the French would emulate the movie's ideals.

"France should be softer.... We need more tolerance, more fraternity, a bit like the France of Amelie Poulain," said Francois Fillon, regional leader of President Jacques Chirac's conservative party, in a speech last year.

Meanwhile, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, a Socialist, honored "Amelie's" director and producer with a medal Wednesday. The mayor hailed "a work that celebrates Paris with all the city's inner humanity, energy, poetry and joy of living."

Even Chirac held a private screening of "Amelie" at his elegant official residence, the Palais de l'Elysee, attended by director Jeunet ("Alien: Resurrection") and actress Tautou.

In some ways, Amelie-mania has been even more pronounced in Japan. But it has been based more on commerce than poetry, warmth or the character's benevolence. The Japanese love Amelie's clothes, bed, bathroom and her apartment furnishings in general. Japanese clothing chains have produced a line of fashionable accessories such as pins, T-shirts and good-luck charms. Japanese travel agencies also offer special "Amelie" packages that include tours of Montmartre and the movie locations.

It has been a long time since a French comedy combined spectacular critical and commercial success at home and abroad. The film has been seen by more than 8 million people in France and 17 million elsewhere.

"Amelie" is set in 1997, but it creates a dreamlike Paris that is not really Paris. There are no traffic jams, noise or pollution in this vision of Montmartre as it might have looked half a century ago. The soundtrack, dominated by the melancholic accordion rhythms of postwar Paris, adds to an alchemy that freezes the story in the past.

"'Amelie' is the Montmartre of the 1960s, where grass grew on the sidewalks because there was not a lot of traffic," says Alain Gauthier, a former Montmartre resident shopping at Chez Ali, a grocery store that figures prominently in the film. "You can tell from the story that it's happening now, but it has a look from the old days."

That too helps explain why "Amelie" immediately struck a chord among the French, and particularly Parisians, who admit they tend to be dour and reserved.

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