1. Middlebrowbeaten (column, January 2002)
Surfing online film sites, I was stopped dead in my tracks by an unbeatable opening clause. “For those made vomitous by the white-sugar, smile-button Paris foisted on us by Amélie …”. Thus began the distinguished Bostonian critic Gerald Peary, en route to another French movie more to his taste, the down-and-dirty Baise-moi (2001). But let’s back up a little on the strange culture war sparked all over the globe by Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s international smash hit, Amélie, known more grandly on its native soil as Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain.
Jeunet is best known for his strenuously stylised, cartoonish collaborations with Marc Caro – although, for my money, his best film remains the criminally underrated Alien Resurrection (1997). Perhaps feeling a little anonymous in Hollywood, Jeunet returned home to craft the quintessential magic-realist comedy-romance that non-French people are sure to call “very French”. It’s an energetic, boundlessly inventive, relentlessly sweet film, soldering the self-consciousness of modern pop to a swooning dream of a nicer, safer France. The only pertinent reference Jeunet fails to include is the old Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin tune: “On the streets of Montmartre, there’s a Frenchy kind of art …”
Jeunet’s Frenchy kind of art tells the tale of innocent Amélie (Audrey Tautou) who lives to fulfil the dreams of others (even when they are unaware of her wily stage-managing) but inwardly pines for a love of her own. It’s a fairy tale for the world’s “little people” and their big dreams. So who could fail to be charmed by this film? (See my own review below.) Well, as it turns out, it has left quite a few professional viewers feeling quite contrary. The anti-Amélie army grows more rabid with each passing day. In Argentina, a flamboyant critic, editor, and film festival director known in public only as Quintín writes that, like its heroine, Amélie is “dull, almost insignificant … very few films require so little from the viewer”.
His verdict was mild in comparison with the salvo that started this entire war, from the enraged film critic Serge Kaganski of the French newspaper Libération. To him, Amélie is a New Right, even “ethnically cleansed”, sickly nostalgic fantasy – like the Australian Spotswood (1992), a supposedly benign daydream that looks back to the pre-multicultural ‘50s (hence Peary’s white-sugar slur). Jeunet testily responded with anti-critic insults almost identical to those I once received in the mail from a prominent Australian filmmaker, who accused me of fatally lacking “taste, education and mental health”. (Take a bow, Nadia Tass!)
The wider significance of the Amélie controversy indeed centres on the vexed matter of taste. Without ever quite saying it, the film’s enemies see it as the epitome of middlebrow cinema – bland, flattering, easy to consume, quick to forget. As a rule, a certain breed of impassioned, serious critic tends to champion the extremes of cinema – the most demanding, innovative, experimental films (ultra-highbrow) or the trashiest horror and action films (disreputably lowbrow). Such critics are almost phobically averse to consensus favourites and comfortable crowd pleasers. Serge Daney, Libération’s chief critic in the 1980s, epitomised this stance when he declared that “a good film doesn’t unite, it divides”. Such a politique is seductive, but it also dismisses out of hand a great deal of undeniably popular, well-crafted and thoughtful cinema – some favourite targets, alongside Jeunet, include Agnés Jaoui (The Taste of Others, 2000) and Giuseppe Tornatore (Malena, 2000).
The charm of Améllie may well fade with coming years, but it is hard to believe that its crimes against cinema and humanity are really so horrible or enormous as its detractors claim. As much as I hate to admit it, the middlebrow may be the final frontier of this particular film-culture war.
2. Review (December 2001)
In a series of classic films made between the 1920s and the ‘60s, Fritz Lang conjured the figure of Dr Mabuse – a seemingly immortal phantom permanently hidden behind veils and screens, communicating his sinister commands via the latest technological media. Mabuse was the master controller of society, an omniscient and omnipotent stage manager of events small and large. Lang acknowledged, with grim irony, that Mabuse was in part a stand-in for himself, the notoriously tyrannical, perfectionist director.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a gentler, more benign Mabuse for the new millennium. His early films made in collaboration with Marc Caro, Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995), set forth a penchant for Baroque Expressionism mixed with lusty humour. Whether it was the orgiastic spectacle of sex cries filling a cityscape in the former, or the elaborate labyrinth of passageways and tunnels linking all places and characters in the latter, Jeunet’s cinematic fantasy declared itself: to map the world and show the intricate interrelation of all its parts, from the banal to the momentous.
After his experience in Hollywood with Alien Resurrection, Jeunet scored a massive, global hit with Amélie. It offers a lighter version of his recurring fantasy, emphasising the classic populist theme of ordinary people going about their quotidian lives, each with some unfulfilled dream. Amélie (Audrey Tautou) has powers of perception into these lives that border on the mystical. She is a kind of everyday saint, contriving ways to make dreams come true. Deep in her heart, however, she entertains an egotistical, even maudlin fantasy. She does not want to die unacknowledged and unloved. So she begins shyly pursuing her own dream-man, Nino (Matthieu Kassovitz).
Amélie’s extended vision, however, cannot compare to Jeunet’s. From the first seconds of this fast, prodigious film, he is zipping around everywhere. His storytelling method owes a lot to the new modes of information-gathering bequeathed to us by the digital age. Far more dexterously than in the dire Vanilla Sky (2001), the introduction of each new fact or character “opens a link” to a mini-movie. In these wonderful sequences, we discover lists of everyone’s likes and dislikes.
Amélie tries a little too hard to please, and runs out of puff before the end. Its Gallic charm is laid on with a trowel for the world market. Those who dislike or even despise the film refer to it as a grotesque compendium of artificial contrivances, pushing the dream of an alternate, perfect world on par with Steven Spielberg’s sinister, pop Utopias. But these critiques strike me as overstated. Amélie is not a great film but it is entertaining and imaginative. Jeunet’s cartoonish style reaches often hilarious and surreal heights – virtually every scene is a frenzy of small, quick movements, darting eyes and tiny surprises. Jeunet is like an architect gone mad – every space has to be geometrically mapped and then appended to every other space within the overall design of this magical Montmartre.
Tautou maintains her girlish buoyancy to the end. And even though Jeunet is mostly happy to suspend us in fairytale notions of eternal happiness, he occasionally lets a mordant trace of love-gone-wrong peep through his sunny, pastel palette.
Postscript: Although my own relatively positive and benign opinion on Amélie is clearly expressed in the above pieces from late 2001 and early 2002, that did not stop me getting hate-mail at the time, pointing out that I am clearly unable to see that the film is “only innocent entertainment”, and not some political tract. Sigh …