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Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

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Amélie (2001)

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.

Movie Information

Genre: Comedy | Fantasy | Romance
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Actors: Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz, Rufus, Dominique Pinon, Serge Merlin, Isabelle Nanty, Yolande Moreau
Year: 2001
Original Review: July 2003


Takashi Ito – Thunder

Ghost (1984) Takashi Ito

Two 5-minute shorts from Japanese experimental filmmaker Takashi Ito. Don’t watch the first if you’re sensitive to strobe lighting.

Claudia Cardinale: 6 Decades in the Movies

For The New York Times, Elisabetta Povoledo reports on the 23-film retrospective of Cardinale’s career presented at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. I first saw Claudia Cardinale in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and she made quite an impression–both in terms of her beauty and her strength of will. That’s one film I happily revisit from time to time.

Les sept meilleures adaptations cinématographiques d’œuvres littéraires québécoises

Eric K. Boulianne : l’étoile inconnue du cinéma québécois

Si tu ne connais pas le cinéma québécois, commence ici. Si tu le connais, es-tu d’accord avec cette liste ? Moi, j’en suis, plus ou moins. Mais Kamouraska (1973) et Mon Oncle Antoine (1971)ne compte pas ?

Et parce qu’on est au Québec, un profil d’une « vedette de l’ombre ».

Spike Lee vs. white-savior films: “BlackkKlansman” Oscar nod is nearly 30 years overdue

Rachel Leah at pretty much nails it in advance of the 2019 Academy Awards:

It remains to be seen how the Academy will treat “Green Book” this year. While either “Roma” or “A Star Is Born” could take home the Best Picture statue, “Green Book” can be considered a frontrunner after it won Outstanding Motion Picture at the Producers Guild of America awards, which is often a predictor of the Best Picture Oscar. Will Academy voters award another white-savior film — that is, another lazy, unimaginative feel-good story for white people, where racism is a personal flaw that a well-intentioned white character just needs to overcome? The many nominations the film has racked up are not a good sign, especially considering that not a single woman director was tapped for Best Director, or their films for Best Picture, and Lee becomes just the sixth black director to be nominated for the Best Director category in the Academy’s entire 91-year history. When Lee accepted his honorary Oscar a few years ago he famously said: “It’s easier to be the president of the United States as a black person than to be the head of a studio.”

Even more importantly, will this nation ever engage with its history and present in a way in which the contentment of white people is not central? Will we instead finally prioritize the livelihoods of its marginalized populations? Neither America nor Hollywood have shown much indication that this year will be anything but business as usual.

Of course, Green Book won for Best Film, so the answer to Leah’s first question above was “yes.” As for her other two questions, maybe there’s some movement towards a “yes”? Then again, we recent attacks on critical race theory by right-wing pundits and politicians, maybe not at all…

Films Worth Talking About:

Code Unknown, Cure, Amores Perros, Moulin Rouge, The Others, Amélie, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Ali, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Fat Girl, The Devil’s Backbone, Ocean’s Eleven, Sexy Beast, Wet Hot American Summer, Monsters Inc., Werckmeister Harmonies, Gosford Park, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Audition, Memento, The Royal Tannenbaums, Ghost World, In the Mood for Love, Mulholland Drive, No Man’s Land, The Piano Teacher, Kairo, In the Bedroom, Donnie Darko, Black Hawk Down, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Shrek, Pearl Harbor, Jurassic Park 3, Planet of the Apes, The Fast and the Furious, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Cast Away, Traffic, [Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon], A Beautiful Mind, Enemy at the Gates, Spirited Away, Training Day, Legally Blonde, A Knight’s Tale, Jeepers Creepers, Frailty, Hannibal, Rush Hour 2, Joy Ride, Bridget Jones’s Dairy, Kiss of the Dragon, The Mummy Returns, Ghost World, Waking Life, The Gleaners and I, The Circle, Va savoir, Eureka, The Deep End, Together, Apocalypse Now Redux, Y Tu Mamá Tambien, Ichi the Killer, What Time is It There? Vanilla Sky, Sex and Lucía, Trouble Every Day, Zoolander, Millenium Actress, Blow, My voyage to Italy, Under the Sand, Children Underground, The Endurance, Lantana, The Day I Became a Woman, Together, Fighter, Faat Kiné, Jung (War) in the land of the Mujaheddin, Last Resort, The Last Castle, The One, Evolution, The Majestic, The Safety of Objects, Josie and the Pussycats, Kissing Jessica Stein, 61, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, K-Pax, Osmosis Jones, Das Experiment, Buffalo Soldiers, Shaolin Soccer, The Pledge, My Sassy Girl, [Smell of Camphor, Perfume of Jasmine], Monsson Wedding, How Harry Became a Tree, Hundstage, Secret Ballot, Lukewarm Water Under a Red Bridge, I’m Going Home, R Xmas, La Stanza Del Figlio, Trouble Every Day, Il mestiere delle armi, Les mes fortes, Baran, Time Out, Storytelling, Hi Tereska, Lan Yu, Lagaan, Wit

The Bigger Picture

Films: Delicatessen (1991), The City of Lost Children (1995), A Very Long Engagement (2004), He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (2002), Venus Beauty Institute (1999)

Music: whatever you can find by Yann Tiersen

Books: Frank Jones, “Wish You Were Here” [short story]; Wil Huygen & Rien Poortvliet, Gnomes; Georges Perec, Life: A User’s Manual

The Word on the Street

Sidebar #143d: The Word on the Street

[Note: There are over 1,500 User Reviews for Amélie on Imdb]

A slice of heaven right here on earth, “Amelie” is a joy to behold, and has some of the most gorgeous cinematography I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Audrey Tatou is perfection as the title character. A combination of Audrey Hepburn, Dolly Levi and Roger Rabbit, she involves herself in the world surrounding her as a means of really enjoying living. There are moments when she finds complete and total joy just walking down the street.
Some of it is hilarious, when her pet goldfish habitually tries to commit suicide, or when she is on the telephone with the man at the porno shop, or when a character is asked “Are you a congenital shmuck”?
But for the most part, its a human comedy, about love, of course.
Just beautiful. [Boyo-2]

[Audrey Tautou] has one of those faces that seem to smile the entire time. She looks like she just pulled a joke and she is waiting for you to find out what it is. [rbverhoef]

Here is a film so original, so funny, and so warm that it left me with smiling for hours and the people on the sidewalk thinking I was crazy. Yes it is heart warming, but not in the phony Wal-Mart commercial sense; but in the sense of how good you feel when laughing with a dear, dear friend. [alastair_m]

For Amelie sex is not something that is intimidating, temptingly desirable, sinful, adult, or lustful. It’s just another of the many silly things that people do in this world that make us human. [ztruk2001]

The atmosphere is also supported by the magnificent music by Yann Tiersen who has composed 19 songs in 15 days for this movie. The principal motive appears in many variations somehow being joyful, yet at the same time sad – slow and sometimes fast and activating. The music supports every moment in the film and becomes the sound of a fabulous world. [emilio77]

It’s hard to put into words how much I loved `Amelie.’ I felt as though I were sitting next to Monet, watching as he effortlessly splashed brilliant watercolors across his canvas. I had this strange but fantastic feeling of being inside the mind of Amelie, seeing everything in the vibrant colors she viewed life with, and wanting to remain there much longer than the two hours allotted. It was just so refreshing to watch a movie where your imagination was free to soar rather than feel confused by the apparent deja vu from last year’s first installment of the same pointless drivel. [yaseminturkish]

I cannot understand why so many users are raving about this film. Yes, it is original. Yes, the lead actress is cute and holds your attention. Yes, the other characters are bizarre and sometimes funny.
But REALLY !!!! This is one of the highest rated films on imdb? I have been a movie geek for almost 50 years, and this did NOT even remotely jump out at me as an all-time great film. It is enjoyable fluff, nothing more. Did it make me feel good about life? No. I already was OK when I watched it, and it didn’t move me, touch me in any real way. I expected so much more, from all the reviews. I was disappointed.
It is like cotton candy as opposed to homemade chocolate. French cinema has produced much better than this. Jules & Jim, Z, 400 Blows, Manon of the Spring, to name a few. [jjh6519]

The film has clearly taken cues from the French New Wave (Amelie even watches “Jules Et Jim” at the Cinema) but it has taken those editing and storytelling tricks to the nth degree and spoiled the entire film, even Amelie is taken from Irene Jacob’s character in “Three Colours: Red” and made even nicer and sweeter until she’s just plain obnoxious It’s an unbearably naive film that’s filled with so much sugary fake charm that it becomes sickening rather quickly, and once the cutesy novelty wears off you realise that there’s just no substance to the storyline at all. Some people have been enchanted by the magical qualities of it, but I was completely put off as the whole thing was over-the-top and rather self-indulgent. A film like “L’Atalante” finds the poetic beauty in the banality of life and simply displays it in all of its ordinary glory. “Amelie” constantly forces you to accept its own childish and faux-magical view of the world, some people can accept it, but I can’t. [miura88]