It’s all about garden gnomes, really. Are they or are they not lethal weapons? How you answer this question could reveal a lot about you. Take Frank Jones, for instance. A columnist for the Toronto Star, Frank once wrote a short story, called “Wish You Were Here,” in which a garden gnome was used as an instrument of psychological terrorism. Against an innocent old lady, no less. For those of you with Gothic, Kafkaesque, or existentialist bents, such a role for a commonplace garden ornament undoubtedly confirms things about the universe you’ve long suspected to be true. This month’s film choice, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (full title: The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain), is probably not for you. And if you’ve watched Jean-Claude Lauzon’s Léolo more than twice, Amélie could induce terminal moral outrage. “There is no hell, there’s only France,” was one viewer’s comment.
Then again, even the Germans have a saying about being “As well off as God in France.” If you happen to believe that Paris can be whatever magical place you darn well want it to be, and if you’re willing to accept that garden gnomes may be used for the salvation of mankind—or at least the redemption of one man’s soul—then I’ve got just the movie for you. What’s the opposite of existentialism? Surrealism? Catholicism? How about a creative blend of both? Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie plays fast and loose with reality and theology to tell a story filled with hope, humor, romance, revelation and small miracles.
Not the least of those miracles is Audrey Tautou, the young French actress who plays Amélie. This was a star-making performance. What’s the opposite of a femme fatale? I wish I knew. I guess the movies just haven’t offered us that many examples of young women with beauty, charisma, wit and spunk who rescue males instead of terrorizing them. How can we not have a word to describe a girl like that? Hey, maybe I can pretend that this is like Richardson’s Roundup on CBC, and you readers out there can come up with suggestions?
Amélie begins with a hilarious tour-de-farce biography of its heroine’s life up to the point where she discovers a 40-year-old candy box hidden at the base of a wall in her apartment. The biography opens with a bluefly landing on rue St. Vincent in Montmartre in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, includes wine glasses, toolboxes, misdiagnosed heart conditions, a suicidal goldfish and a Quebec tourist committing suicide off the towers of Notre Dame… and more or less ends with the announcement of Lady Di’s death on TV. We learn that Amélie’s father was a rather cold fish, and her mother a desperate neurotic. We learn that Amélie’s childhood was spent in almost total social isolation. We also learn things that don’t seem to matter at all, but which are told which such cinematic flair and narrative gusto that we’d never dream of objecting. And those of us who love movies learn that director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a master of editing, pacing, light, and sound (this film has the best aural landscape I’ve heard since the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink). Jeunet’s phantasmagoric Paris doesn’t exist, but will have tourists looking for it—and finding it—for years to come).
Amélie’s childhood is a recipe for disaster. In America, she’d turn up in a David Lynch film. Blue Velvet II. In Germany, in a Fassbinder film. The Marriage of Amélie Poulin. The actress to play her would be Audrey Tautou’s doppelganger, silent movie star Louise Brooks. Amélie would be damaged goods. The lost child. The time bomb waiting to explode. In Jeunet’s film, au contraire, she’s ready to open her wings and fly. This optimism seems to have offended people who have a hard time getting in touch with their inner garden gnomes.
The key to Amélie’s awakening is the box I mentioned earlier. It contains mementos of a stranger’s childhood: photos, marbles, matchbox cars and bikes. Amélie has an epiphany. If by (anonymously) returning that box to its owner she can bring joy into a stranger’s life, she will embark on a secret life of random acts of kindness. The experiment is a success. Overwhelmed by the sense of time wasted and time fleeting, the man who recovers those bits of his childhood decides to seek out his estranged daughter and her child.
Had the rest of Amélie just been a series of similar feel-good stories, I probably wouldn’t be writing about it here. Amélie is not a saint. She is not Young Mother Theresa. She’s more of a gamine bienheureuse, a holy scamp. A young girl with a good heart whose past has made it a little difficult to find a soul mate. A couple of brief love affairs haven’t turned her off sex; she just knows that there should be a lot more that goes with it than she’s found. Her strange childhood has wrapped her in a fuzzy cocoon that protects her from harm but makes intimate contact almost impossible.
It takes someone even more fragile to get close enough to Amélie to coax her into taking the emotional risks that will free her. That someone is Raymond Dufayel (Serge Merlin), an artist who’s lived for 20 years virtually alone in his apartment because of a medical condition that renders his bones as fragile as glass. Each year he makes a meticulous copy of the same boating picture by Renoir. Always there’s an essence in the painting which eludes him. As Raymond becomes aware of his young neighbor, he uses pretended analyses of his painting to push Amélie to look more closely at her own life. She’s not fooled, and in turn sends him cryptic videos of the stranger, wider world he’s never seen. In spite of Jeunet’s technical skill, Amélie would have been much less of a film without the superb performances of actors such as Merlin (as well as Rufus as Amélie’s father, Dominique Pinon as a hopelessly paranoid lover, and Yolande Moreau as the lachrymose neighbor).
The skein of Amélie’s new life gradually becomes entangled with that of an eccentric young man with a mania for collecting. When she first crosses paths with Nino Quincampoix, he’s fishing for bits of torn photos under one of those photo booths that are everywhere in Paris. He takes the pieces he finds and reassembles them in an album. A family album in reverse—candid shots of total strangers. Like Amélie, Nino is cocooned in his own world which is a little lonely but not at all uncomfortable or frightening.
We know at once that they’ll fall in love.
But because they’ve had to live on their own for so long, it feels to them as if their hearts are as fragile as the old artist’s bones. To get to the first kiss takes a kind of Rube Goldberg sequence of serendipity, one-sided rendezvous, hidden notes, public posters, misunderstandings, and stratagems more usually found in kidnappings rather than courtships. And if you’re late for a date? That’s obviously because you’ve been taken hostage in an armed hold-up and wound up an amnesiac in a remote village in Tajikistan trying to sell warheads to the Mujahedeen. Need I also mention the mystery of the bald-headed man whose torn photos turn up in Photomats across the city?
I think it’s part of Amelie’s magic that the actor that plays Nino should be Mattieu Kassovitz. Who would ever imagine that this nice young man is the director of one of the most violent, nihilistic pictures in recent French cinema—La Haine (Hatred)? His decision to work in Jeunet’s film is proof that a blindingly clear vision of what’s wrong with society doesn’t preclude laughter and innocence. Both Jeunet (who’d just finished directing Alien: Resurrection!) and Kassovitz could fully appreciate the irony that one of Charlie Chaplin’s greatest comedies, The Gold Rush, was partially based on a book he’d read about the 1846 Donner expedition that ended in cannibalism.
Although Amélie has one large imaginary creature, several animal portraits that move, television programs which synch directly with characters’ thoughts, and a set of talking photographs, I don’t believe any special effects were used in this film. It’s all so fluid that my theory is that the director just lucked out on an alternate reality. He stepped through a wall on the rue des Abbesses and voilà! there was just the Paris he needed. Come to think of it, that seems to happen a lot to anyone who spends some time there….
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Available on YouTube? No
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Still a charmer, after all these years. Then, as now, one has to look far and wide to find a film whose main theme is simply happiness. Watching Audrey Tautou in Amélie is like seeing Audrey Hepburn for the very first time–enchanting. I’m ashamed to admit that of the almost 50 films & shorts Tautou has made, I’ve only seen two or three. Not a conscious omission, by any means, and one that I intend to correct over the next few months. My record’s even worse with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films, but I see that several of his movies are now available through iTunes. Au boulot! as they say in France.
What I did manage to do was watch all of the special features on my double-disk version of Amélie. Some informative interviews with Jeunet, in particular. He’s a meticulous planner, storyboarding every detail to avoid wasting time and film when doing the actual shooting. His cinematographer on Amélie, Bruno Delbonnel, says that he sometimes knew the extra camera and lenses and lighting he was going to use for a scene weeks in advance. Jeunet’s attention to detail is also evident in the production design, which customizes the Paris landscape to eliminate distractions, such as cars, to make real settings slightly unreal. This was actually the director’s first film shot on location, providing unique challenges in terms of weather and coping with extraneous factors interfering with his tightly controlled setups. Jeunet visited every Metro station in Paris to scout the ideal locations for his story. That search for perfection and attention to detail pay off big-time.
Astoundingly, Amélie was rejected by the Cannes Film Festival prior to the film’s debut in France. This unexpected slight cast some doubts on a successful roll-out, and Jeunet said he felt a bit like a rabbit at the opening of hunting season. But the movie was an immediate hit with the general public. A fairy tale ending that Amélie herself would have anticipated.
My favorite scene watching the film this time was the one where Nino is 10 minutes late for a rendezvous and Amélie fantasizes about everything that could have gone wrong to derail their meeting. If I remember correctly, her wild imaginings start with a bank robbery and hostage-taking and end with Nino in a cave somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan. If I were still teaching high school English, this would be my next writing assignment: Someone important to you didn’t show up on time–imagine the most outrageous set of circumstances to explain why. You need a chain of at least half a dozen disasters, both major and minor.
Did you know that there’s an entire Wikipedia article devoted to “Traveling gnomes” and the Garden Gnome Liberation Front? There’s even a B.C. connection, with a stolen gnome being returned after 8 months with a book recounting its travels. From the CBC article:
A B.C. woman’s stolen garden gnome has been returned to her after nearly eight months — along with a book documenting the statue’s international adventure.
Bev York, who lives in Victoria’s Highlands, says her gnome reappeared at the end of her driveway this week — accompanied by a hardcover book that tells the tale of an epic road trip filled with margaritas, sun, sand and surf.
“Leopold, the traveling gnome,” as he had been named, coasted from Vancouver Island down to the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.
“It is sweet,” laughed York. “Whoever did it, I think, has a great sense of whimsy and probably [are] very nice people.”
The internet also abounds in articles about the history of garden gnomes, garden gnome mythology, and, in extremis, how to survive attacks by garden gnomes.