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Review: 'Amelie' is imaginative

By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Amelie" is an energetic fantasy about a young French woman who tries to spin life's random disappointments into existential cotton candy.

Although Jeunet has largely retreated from the grotesqueries of "Delicatessen" and "City of Lost Children" (both of which he co-directed with Marc Caro), "Amelie" remains a highlight reel of gorgeous production design and out-there photographic effects. Its whimsical, free-ranging nature is often enchanting; the first hour, in particular, is brimming with amiable, sardonic laughs. But there comes a point where you feel like Jeunet is forcing whimsy down your throat with a plunger. Like Terry Gilliam -- who helped get "Delicatessen" released in America -- he's almost too imaginative for his own good.

"Amelie" opens with one of the most delightful sequences of the year, a lengthy montage full of sometimes sad, sometimes joyous images. As it unfolds, an omniscient narrator describes the obscure likes and dislikes of the people inhabiting Amelie's world. Her mother, for instance, is keen on how fingers look when they wrinkle in the bathtub, and her dad can't get enough of vacuuming and re-organizing his tool box. When she's older, Amelie will work at a café where a regular customer's favorite pastime is secretly popping bubble wrap.

Amelie's lonely childhood is filled with misassumptions and wild flights of fancy. Her stand-offish doctor-father determines that she has a dangerous heart murmur and must be home-schooled, but we're told that her heart rate speeds up during the examination because a person she loves finally places a hand on her.


Jeunet seems to be saying that the little things really are what counts, and that life is nothing more than an extended string of little things. The story then skips ahead several years. Near-silent Amelie has blossomed into a beautiful, brown-eyed woman (played by Audrey Tautou) who attempts to guide those incidental events toward profound payoffs in the lives of others. Her emotional breakthrough will come when she realizes she can do the same for herself.

One morning, after hearing the shocking news of Princess Diana's death, Amelie discovers a small box behind a loose baseboard in her bathroom. It contains a collection of toys and trinkets that she assumes belonged to a little boy who lived in the house years earlier, and she sets out to find him. The delight she takes in secretly watching a now-grown man fill with emotion as he handles the memories of his youth convinces her to act as a sort of guardian angel whose aim is to simply do kind things for unsuspecting people.

Jeunet isn't about to follow a conventional storyline, but that makes sense, given the premise. The rest of the movie is comprised of Amelie's sometimes too elliptical approach to performing her self-appointed duties. She instigates a romance between a gruff café customer (Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon, as the guy who digs bubble wrap) and a co-worker who mans the cigarette counter (Isabelle Naty). This leads to an especially noisy encounter between the two that's reminiscent of Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmuller's slapstick sexuality.

Amelie also befriends a sickly painter (Michel Robin) who hasn't journeyed from his apartment in 20 years (He suffers from the same brittle-bone disorder that effected Samuel L. Jackson's character in "Unbreakable"). Amelie sends the artist videotapes containing the wonders of life, everything from variety show acrobats to thrilling black & white footage of a hefty woman in a beautiful gown singing gospel music and rocking out on an electric guitar. The assorted do-gooder segments (there are several others that work to varying degrees) are supported by an ongoing subplot in which Amelie exacts comically inventive revenge on a mean-spirited grocer (Urbain Cancellier) who likes to belittle his gentle-but-dim assistant (Yolande Moreau).

If Jeunet were a lot more judicious with his camera theatrics and could occasionally stop being so damned oblique, "Amelie" would be a cockeyed masterpiece, something on the order of Jaco van Dormael's lovely "Toto le Hero." But the obvious amount of work that went into every single sound and image makes this an absurdly labor-intensive piece of fluff. That said, Tautou is an endearing performer, part Charlie Chaplin and part Juliette Binoche. And the world is in dire need of a film about the outdated notion of simple human decency. Even with its periodic drawbacks, a five-ton slab of buoyancy might be very good for you right now.

Though playful, "Amelie" contains more than a few dark moments. There's also a couple of overt sex scenes and several instances of nudity. Note that cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel is dabbling in genius territory. At the very least, he deserves an Oscar nomination.



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