Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Of course now we get to it I have no idea why I even chose it.
Maybe because it’s a French movie and you know – there’s obviously a whole world of cinema out there more than the Hollywood blah de blah. Maybe because instead of everything being dark and gritty and horrible it’s a story about love and romance and positivity: I mean the film almost drips with gold and sunshine shining in through the curtains. Maybe because it’s female fronted which means that if we do this now then the Film Club is safe from the woke police tearing us down on all of the internets. Maybe just because it’s fun and interesting to choose films that zip and zag in all sorts of interesting ways – just to remind you of all the things that cinema can do. So far we’ve done: Horror, Sci-fi, Western. Superheroes, Anime, Classics, Animation, Fantasy, Thrillers, Rom-coms and Christmas Movies. So yeah: let’s do the sweet delicate little French thing that even your mother could love and see what kind of interesting things we can drag up from underneath it and (and I’m guessing in the case of Jonathan) make some kind of Simpson reference.
I guess the interesting thing about Amélie is that because it’s a crossover hit it kinda sits at a weird intersection where it seems it’s either cussed for being too obscure and strange on the one hand (“too French and too cute”) and on the other it’s derided for being too mainstream. Altho I can understand that fans of French cinema might blanch at the thought of Amélie as their representative. I mean – I guess we could do the Three Colours Trilogy instead only I watched Blue and Red and both of them were so boring that my brain almost stopped working (whoops).
The thing I do love about Amélie tho is how tactical and thoughtful in terms of all it’s cinema stuff is. Yeah it’s been years and years since I watched it so can’t actually remember any single bit in detail – but it does loads of things with film stock and special effects and camera movements right? In my head it’s kinda part of the same continuum as Fight Club and Requiem for a Dream where the editing is front and centre: almost like they’re speaking cinema in a new language. I don’t know if this is because I saw them at an impressionable age – but they seemed to be pushing things forward in a cool and interesting way.
What’s the Hunter S Thompson quote? “With the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” Is it too much if I say that Amélie is one of those types of movies? The type of thing that made you feel like in the future every feature film would act with the same grace and experimentation as a music video?
LOL speaking of: who remembers when music videos were the best hope for the future of art?
What do you think?
Rewatching Amelie for the first time in many many years all I could think of was shitty dating profiles.
Also: this is a film that only a Liberal Democrat could truly love.
And Amélie Poulain is Tyler Durden without the politics.
All that stuff at the start where every character is introduced with a list of their likes and dislikes started off making me smile but then just kinda made me want to punch myself in the face.
“Raphael Poulin dislikes peeing next to someone else. He also dislikes catching scornful glances at his sandles, and clingy wet swimming trunks. Raphael Poulin likes peeling large strips of wallpaper, lining up and shining his shoes, emptying out his tool box, cleaning it out, and putting everything back.”
(also is it just me or does Raphael Poulin also look like the little cartoon Monty Python guy?).
I mean yeah this is very charming and it’s a nice cinematic thing in how it cuts to all of these various things and Raphael at the train station and the swimming pool etc and it’s a cute echo when it turns out Amelie’s mum does the same thing with her handbag that Raphael does with his tool box – but also: what the fuck man? I mean I remember the feeling watching this back when I was a lot younger thinking that this was a cool way to introduce a whole bunch of characters and give you a feeling as to what they’re like – but what is this stuff actually telling you about these characters? Apart from giving you a general kinda “aww shucks” kinda vibe and this sense that “oh everyone is the same really aren’t they?” (spoiler: they’re really not).
To be fair I guess maybe it tells you a little bit about Raphael Poulin – he likes to be organsied and he has issues with closeness. But apart from that – erm: who does like catching scornful glances at the clothes they wear?
But oh god – the description of Amelie is actually even worse “dipping her hand into sacks of grain, cracking creme brulee with a teaspoon, and skipping stones at St. Martin’s canal.” I know I should like a left-brained freak that wants everything drawn on a diagram with a proper sense of it’s value and function and whose favourite film is The Martian (my favourite film is not The Martian) but what is this stuff really telling you about the character? (answer: pretty much fuck all). I mean: speaking as someone who has looked at far too many dating profiles – it’s the kinda thing that you get on a dating profile that just makes you (ok me) roll your (my) eyes. But then what’s interesting about it is how it cultivates a sense of how people see other people and how they seem themselves – basically: not much more than a series of quirks and a list of countries they’ve visited (LOL).
(If I was going to sum up this film in one word then that word would be “quirky”)
Obviously all of this stuff is deliberate. Amelie isn’t an in-depth look into human psychology and the intricate nature of relationships / personhood or any of that crazy stuff. It’s a little froth, a mild diversion and a glimpse into a universe where love is right behind our front door if only we can be brave enough to open it…
And yeah yeah maybe I should try chilling out a little and learn to smile at all of the delightful french quirkiness but as the old saying goes “Yes it’s fucking political / everything’s political” and that goes double for the things that do their uttermost to present themselves in the most apolitical way possible.
At the start I said that this is a film that only a Liberal Democrat could truly love and by that I mean the type of person that thinks that the only problem with the world are plastic straws and everyone needs to just learn to be nicer to each other. And yes a little fantasy can be a wonderful thing – but don’t you think it’s a bit fucking weird that in this ultimate romantic french movie the girl and the guy never actually speak to each other. It’s just longing looks and games and then they’re speeding around Paris on their bike together. I know it’s a wanky thing to say that you want to watch the movie that happens half an hour after the movie ends – but OMG can you imagine what their relationship would actually be like? After all that fantasy and longing and game playing – what’s the day-to-day business of their relationship actually going to be like? Once they get into the fact that humans beings are a lot more than just dipping her hands into sacks of grain, cracking creme brulee with a teaspoon, and skipping stones at St. Martin’s canal…
Or in other words: I’ll give them six months or so?
Weekend at Arnie’s
Sometimes it’s not just the movie but when you see it. There’s been a couple of times in my life I’ve found this out, very much, to my cost. Seeing Up in the cinema, three months into my mother’s (successful) treatment for lymphoma and with no idea what was coming in the first half hour was an experience so profoundly unpleasant I’ve never fully trusted Pixar again. But for every time something like that’s happened, there’s been a movie that’s blindsided me in the very best of ways. Chicken Run, weirdly. The original How To Train Your Dragon too which is almost painfully emotionally pure and sweet. And Amelie.
If the film works for you, then it’s the cinematic equivalent of that moment where you ask for something in the language of the country you’re in, not just English but louder and slower. If it doesn’t, then it makes you feel like you’re yelling you want egg and chips and calling the waiter ‘GARSON’. It’s a movie that walks a really thin line between acceptance and hipsterism, eccentric and twee. But for all the traveling gnomes and flights of fancy, what hit me when i saw this was how perfectly it walks that line and how well observed so much of it is. The molasses thick passage of time at everyone’s (admittedly super chic) retail jobs is real. Likewise the fact that whether or not you work in a bar, you’ll get regulars as though you did. The stuff here exploring small businesses as the center of their own micro communities is really good. It’s also not overplayed like the fantasy scenes. . There’s a familiar rhythm to these moments that is then rendered unfamiliar by the language we hear them in. It’s also, as we know now, a massively romanticized view of that area of Paris which does the movie no favors. And there’s that line once again; delicate, perceptive character writing, willful ignorance of surroundings.
Plus the film either rejects the normal aspirational narrative at one point or actively curdles it. Amelie writing the quote from one of her regular customers on a wall she knows he;’ll go past is either massively cruel, massively kind or both. It either sends the message that this is as far as his work will ever get or that it’s spread further than he ever dreamed. One more line walked, and whether the movie dances along it or painstakingly avoids making a choice depends a lot on where you’re standing.
If nothing else, it’s a brilliant on ramp to the careers of its cast and crew, all of whom have done other interesting things. Mathieu Kassoviz especially has some amazing stuff on his resume including La Haine and completely bananapants eugenics/mountain climbing/cloning(?)/mismatched cops movie The Crimson Rivers.
One of the ways Amelie hoodwinks the audience is its sheer speed. Voiceover is normally quite evenly paced and conversational, but the unnamed narrator who introduces this film and its characters sounds like he’s speaking as if his life depended on it. The camera itself can’t wait to get to the next flashy shot. And the way we zoom between different scenes leaves little time to pause and shore up the very few nuggets of emotion or meaning the film actually leaves us with.
What you get is a story of surfaces – not just the slightly hyperreal look and feel but the characters who as Joel says are reduced to bundles of quirks that preclude any deeper understanding of their inner lives. Perhaps this is the film trying to reflect the outlook of its protagonist, who can’t relate to people but through elaborate manipulative games that keep them at a distance whilst providing the deeply satisfying sensation of being able to understand and control them.
Jane Austen wrote a rather exasperating but also far funnier novel called Emma about a person like this. She had the good sense to cut her protagonist down to size at the end (cf also the Film Club’s chat about the novel’s most successful film adaptation Clueless). In fairness, there is a moment where Amelie is told off for her immaturity – an on-the-nose little scene where a painter and his painting becomes a metaphor for the filmmaker and his film, who can’t quite get the elusive main character to figure out what she wants so the work can attain a sense of completeness and unity.
But as Joel says, the ending doesn’t retreat from the whimsical tone of the rest of the picture. And the romanticisation of a relationship where we barely hear the couple speak to each other is not healthy. None of this stuff feels real or has stakes and so while it’s all very flashy and diverting you’d be forgiven for wondering what the flipping point of it all is.
One of the things about Phantom Menace wasn’t just that it was a crushing disappointment but that it made you go back and assess how you felt about George Lucas’ whole oeuvre. Sure he did Star Wars but he didn’t direct Empire or Jedi. Sure he did the story for Raiders and Temple of Doom but he didn’t direct. But also you started to suspect that all the bad things about those films – the Ewoks, Short Round, the Nazis – were his ideas and that basically he lost any benefit of the doubt, whereas previously we might have given him props for things he didn’t even do.
With Amelie Jean Pierre Jeunet achieved the opposite. Delicatessen which has some interesting ideas but is basically “fine” suddenly gets re-examined as the early work of an new auteur stretching his limbs. City of Lost Children, maybe not that bad; Alien 4? Well there were some good bits, that was all Jeunet, all the bad bits were probably studio interference.
(Speaking of reappraisals, according to Wikipedia Amélie was supposed to star Emily Watson who appears in the superb Chernobyl, which is directed by the man who brought the world Hangover Part 2. But I digress.)
Because Amelie is a beautiful film in many ways. The setting, the photography, the meticulous detail, the actors and the balance it finds is in revelling in these details. All the characters’ little foibles are a conscious (maybe too conscious) effort to bring some inner lives to people are on screen for a few minutes. To give George Lucas some credit, it was his idea to have the blackboard sequence at the beginning of Raiders where Indy effectively lays out the whole plot of the film to the FBI agent’s who are forgotten for the rest of the movie. He understood that to get the film moving sometimes you just have to tell the audience what the deal is. Another example is casting Marlon Brando as Jor-El in Superman, because it signals to audiences “damn they got Brando in, this Jor-El guy must be serious”. As Ilia says, pace is the trick.
The editing of the film is not just about the breathtaking speed for what is a fairly straightforward story, but the sheer level of hard work going on in the frame. The casting of Audrey Tautou’s face is vital because man do they like to put her whole damn face in the frame to such a degree that it’s a location all by itself. But it’s OK because if her human emoji-ing doesn’t get you then the music is there to give you all the whole story. As well as being the frenchest soundtrack ever it also gives you the “quirky but with regrets” leitmotif throughout.
To call out this wall-paper pasting of the movie’s’ central theme may seem like a criticism but as with Pixar I think I always impressed by any endeavour to make me actually feel something. The message of the 90s was the Seinfeld rule of “no hugging, no learning” and what seems like twee sentiment now was like a warm shower in the middle of a dessert at the time. French films in particular were gruelling explorations of the soul, where love was just the first sign of madness and the inevitable betrayal was just a bitter pill one had to swallow without justice or revenge. Amélie swerves half-heartedly at the end to make you wonder for a second if she too will choke on her own missed opportunities, but the music is there to bring you home.
Of course the real love is for Montmartre. Speaking on Chapo earlier this week Alan Moore said he wrote Jerusalem partly to imbue Northampton with a sense of magic and mythology, in an attempt to revive from its rapid collapse. Paris of course, while the setting for hundreds of stories, still benefits from being bathed by Jeunet in green and golden light throughout, nestling in your mind like a fond childhood memory.
Mike: Wanna go back into your party?
Tim: But they were playing ‘The Time Warp’! I hate ‘The Time Warp’!
Mike: Daisy likes it.
Tim: I don’t care! I hate it! It’s boil-in-the-bag perversion for sexually repressed accountants and first-year drama students with too many posters of Betty Blue, The Blues Brothers, Big Blue and Blue Velvet on their blue bloody walls!
There is something about the sex-shop dildo counting scene which made me think about this quote. I enjoy Amelie, but I sort of wonder if I’m getting played. Does the scene exist (along with the “how many orgasms” scene) to give the film a little bit of edginess without actually being in anyway challenging? It does work as a bit of shorthand to show what an open minded chap Matthieu Kassovitz is, but as we know this is not a film that uses visual shorthand when there is a narrator who can just tell you everything you need to know, and much more besides. Of course I don’t want to be over sensitive – spiritual sibling to Amelie, Fight Club, does the bit about splicing cocks into movies so maybe film makers were just doing a “how many dicks can I get past the censors before they’ll give it an R/18 certificate” game, which I can appreciate. Also everyone knows that full frontal nudity means “serious drama”. There’s even a Bill Hicks sketch about how tame British porn was in the 90s, right up until you turn on Channel 4 after the Watershed and you were suddenly swept in to a sea of sexy subtitled dramas like Betty Blue which has a cock stroking/commentary scene in the first 5 minutes.
Indeed Betty Blue is almost like Amelie in reverse, with two free living sexy dreamers meeting at the beginning of the film and living with the consequences of basically being hopelessly stupid, ruining any number of lives along the way. It stands as a sort of quintessential art house French movie, and Amelie owes just enough of a debt to it to stand a reasonable chance of getting on the Artificial Eye video label – the loftiest goal for “World Cinema” during the VHS era. The difference is whatever your definition of Arthouse cinema is (and for many that definition would be “stupefyingly dull”) Betty Blue was doing that thing, where as Amelie is kind of tailgating. It’s not a criticism but I can see why wearing that pretension it seems a little empty, and while that’s true of 90% of films, those 90% aren’t trying to pull the same counterfeit operation as Jeunet. Is he trying to bring arty cinema to the masses or trying convince the masses his film is arty cinema, and not just a nicely shot Meg Ryan movie with subtitles?
I remember there being some sort of poetry poll which revealed that the UK’s favourite poem was the Owl and the Pussy Cat. Nothing wrong with that, who doesn’t like Edward Lear, but it sort of reveals that most people put aside poetry once they get to the age of about 6 or 7. Literally everything I read my kids takes pains to be in rhyming verse, some more successfully than others. But then there’s a cliff edge when kids are told that long-form writing = grown up writing and that’s that, and many, like me never find their way back to poetry, even though they knows it’s a thing. Maybe people need a push into that world and maybe Amelie gives people the push they need to try the harder films with a subtitles (though Akita is like right there). It’s pitch is: You don’t like subtitles? Don’t worry we have a human emoji explains the plot with her massive face. You don’t like trying to suss out complicated depth of character? We will literally spell out what each person is about in a narrated intro. Don’t like pondering the meaning of existence? There’s boobs and rubber dicks coming right up my friend, everything is gonna be just fine.