Stop, Look and Listen

Amélie Directs Our Attention to the Beauty of Everyday Details

Last weekend at the San Francisco airport, I saw Paul Wellstone. I know it was him because I asked him, and he said yes. I thought it couldn't get any better, until the next day at LAX, when I saw the muy fabulosa Charo. I know it was her, because there is only one Charo. It's amazing, the stuff you see if you just look. One time I spotted Elvis singing "Love Me Tender" outside my window--which was odd, since the curtains were closed. I noted that he looked like an x-ray of a simian's skeleton. Granted, I was on acid--but it was definitely Elvis.

Like I said, it's amazing what you can see if you just look. This is a sub-theme of the new French tickler Amélie, which I hereby proclaim to be "The Feelgood Hit of the Post-Terrorist Era!" (Or at least of the Post-Terrorist, Pre-Harry Potter Interval.) And as soon as it comes out on video, it's going straight to the top of my Rent When Depressed list. Which is surprising, since it's French. But Amélie is neither pretentious nor morose. It's funny in a hah-hah, I'm-actually-laughing way. It's cute but not cutesy, sweet but not sugary. Smart but not check-out-the-big-brain-on-moi. There are no clowns of any sort, and no mimes. It feels warm. No aloof assassins in stilettos, no guns. And no violence. But there is a ceramic garden gnome. Like Steve Martin said: Comedy is not pretty.

The film, co-written and directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who made Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children with his former partner Marc Caro), also has an appreciation for the minutiae of life apparent to those who look closely--children and others who live near to the ground, and to their senses. It's a tribute to the magnitude of the minute. And, like a good children's story, it's comforting and sensually delightful--what Tootsie would call "yummy."

Amélie, played delicately by the really-too-pretty Audrey Tatou, is a young woman with a very specific background, as we learn during the film's first chapter. A clinical male voice narrates a comic, mini-pseudo-documentary about Amélie's childhood: uptight parents, home schooling, social isolation, wildly creative internal life. Then Mom dies. This opening sequence sets a tone for the whole movie through dry wit and manic attention to the beauty of everyday details: At the exact moment Amélie is conceived, two empty wine glasses, sitting on a patio table, dance together as the wind lifts the tablecloth on which they sit.

Eventually, Amélie grows up. But even after the documentary section seems to be over, and the male voice hands the point of view over to Amélie, she's still stuck in her childhood. Amélie is free, with a great apartment in Montmartre and a job in a semi-interesting cafe, but she feels small and alone--a stranger in the world whose greatest sensual pleasure is digging her hand into bags of dried beans at the grocer's. The problem is that she hasn't yet become Herself in the world: She's still responding to it as she was taught to do in childhood, and it sucks. In other words, she's me and every person I know, at one point or another. Like film heroines great and small (Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, Olivia Newton-John in Grease, Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, and Drew Barrymore in practically everything), Amélie decides to make a project of her life and create a more beautiful and useful existence. Just like that. And so she does. (And I fucking love that--pardon my French.)

Amélie's mode of self-improvement involves becoming "a regular do-gooder": not a Mother Teresa, but maybe a li'l sister Teresa. She pays careful attention to those around her and tries to give them what she thinks they need, however inadequate: She rushes a blind old man down the busy sidewalk, breathlessly describing the sights. Her neighbor, the "Glass Man," is a shut-in with brittle bones who's been painting copies of "The Luncheon of the Boating Party" for 20 years. She befriends him, too. She orchestrates a love match between two lonely café regulars. She visits her widowed (and maybe wacko) father, and she is involved in liberating a certain garden gnome. She gaslights a cruel grocer by slightly rearranging everything in his apartment. All these scenes are touched with a sense of magical realism that feels slightly Latin.

Being a rotten sap, a dirty hippie, and a non-isolationist, I'm reminded by Amélie of two cool facts of life. First is the array of mad riches available every second you're alive; second is the strange magic engendered simply by taking positive action. Howards End used to be one of my favorite movies, until I suspected that it was not pacifist but passivist, afraid of the future and wary of bold action. Shall we spend our lives grieving for lost beauty? On some level, yes--of course. But shall we then submit to horrible entropy? Or shall we do as Sir Elton John? When he lost his hair, did he shiver and wail? No--he wore outrageous wigs. When he got chubby and Disneyfied, did he die of shame and guilt? No--he sang with Eminem, then recorded a real album of real songs in two days. He started over.

Not all Amélie's plans work out, and she also finds that those she helps end up helping her, too--which is always the way it goes. This is a fairy tale, for sure, but a healthy one. Most girly fairy tales are all about awakenings and makeovers--always at the hands of a fairy godmother or prince. In Amélie, the transformation is not in our heroine's appearance, but in her approach to the world. Her delicate values and subtle senses are too beautiful to be shut away in some damn tower--the world needs them too much. In this way, Amélie is the story of every artist--even the secret artist, whose work is still growing quietly in her heart.

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