Friday, November 9, 2001

“Amelie,” the year’s most popular French movie among the French themselves, is an undeniable charmer, in part because it’s also a hotbed of cinematic playfulness.
While glorifying the furtive benevolence of a lovelorn Montmarte barmaid, Amelie Poulan (embodied by the wide-eyed and readily adorable Audrey Tautou), director Jean-Pierre Jeunet also transforms her neighborhood and other scenic landmarks of Paris into a cleverly augmented fairyland.
Originally an animator, he falls back on illustrative magic to hasten a pregnancy through time-lapse images of the expectant mother, give the power of speech to snapshots in a photo album or set the wineglasses on a table to dancing.
I lost count, but I think it’s safe to estimate that there are scores of such pictorial jokes and enhancements in “Amelie.” Booked exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle for the time being, the movie also develops a conspicuous weakness of a fairly amiable and excusable kind during the closing episodes.
Mr. Jeunet can’t seem to contrive a timely wrap-up; he persists in embroidering and prolonging the conceits you already have embraced. As a result, they grow a trifle wearisome down the stretch. Charming your socks off for about 15 or 20 minutes more than necessary, “Amelie” also illustrates how to overdo an enchanting tease. It comes as a relief when Mr. Jeunet finally gets a grip on the last, excessively lingering subplot, the heroine’s own love story, in time to orchestrate a chipper fade-out.
The plot purports to follow Amelie’s life from conception to romantic fulfillment, accounting for both the longings and eccentricities that lead her toward busybody interventions as a young woman. The pretext seems especially ingenious because it might seduce die-hard cynics as effectively as cockeyed optimists.
Amelie herself belongs to the latter group and makes her least devious sort of appeal to their generous, ameliorative outlook. At the same time, people who observe that their fellow creatures are full of perverse, oblivious and disheartening traits would find considerable reinforcement from Amelie’s struggles even from Amelie’s goodness, in some respects.
She’s not above underhanded or crackpot tricks while carrying out her schemes. She also proves maddeningly coy about acknowledging her own interest in the obsessed young man designated as her sweetheart. On the face of things, he’s less than promising. Called Nino and impersonated by the actor-director Mathieu Kassovitz, he works in a porn shop (temporarily, one hopes) and spends his spare time collecting torn photos from the immediate vicinity of jiffy photo booths.
Those determined to resist Amelie’s charms might interpret this love match as a plausible hint of romantic calamity soon after the fade-out.
Mr. Jeunet specialized in virtuoso creepiness in his first three features: “Delicatessen,” “City of Lost Children” and, during a sojourn to Hollywood, “Alien Resurrection.” The bizarre and ominous influences haven’t been banished from the essentially upbeat milieu of “Amelie.” They still lurk in corners, popping out from the filmmaker’s macabre subconscious. It probably would require a great deal more practice to align his sunny and shadowy sides in a way that approximated perfect balance and harmony. The haphazard blend is always provocative.
Amelie’s career as a do-gooder is prompted by a set of circumstances that defies happier variation. Her first brainstorm remains her best. Amelie discovers a little boy’s treasure box hidden behind a wall in her apartment. Determined to find the owner, now a lonely guy of middle age, she succeeds, after a number of false starts. Watching from concealment, she experiences the supreme satisfaction of witnessing his joy when the lost souvenirs seem to be restored miraculously to his possession.
Amelie branches out, spreading herself a bit thin while attempting undercover guardian-angel schemes for the benefit of several people. She becomes a matchmaker in the workplace, a consoler to her self-pitying landlady, a spur to travel for her solitary dad and a scourge to the grocer, who has been treating a somewhat retarded son abominably while inflicting years of rudeness on customers.
Meanwhile, her roundabout method of approaching Nino, who has lost a precious collection of his own that Amelie retrieves, introduces a somewhat mocking note of pathos: The amateur physician can’t seem to act in a forthright way to cure her own case of lovelorn blues.
Not all these schemes are gems, and it takes a while to figure out a few of the whimsies, such as Amelie’s device for luring her father away from terminal inertia. However, there also are some dazzling effects, notably an interlude when Amelie longs so much for Nino that she mistakes a kitten’s presence, rustling a bead curtain in her kitchen, for the young man’s presence. The deflation is reversed suddenly when he turns up a moment later at the front door, causing her to reel for a second time within a matter of seconds.
Audrey Tautou, who had a small but striking role in the workplace comedy-tear-jerker “Venus Beauty Institute,” a talented movie that had ending problems of its own, seems to be denied a decisive breakthrough by the inability of Mr. Jeunet to showcase her in a range of emotions and predicaments. She’s a lovely camera subject, but it’s impossible to get an adequate appreciation of her susceptibilities and possibilities.
Mr. Jeunet kind of drops the ball here. One didn’t feel that William Wyler or Billy Wilder had neglected such amenities while directing Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday” and “Sabrina,” respectively. As welcome as it is, “Amelie” also needs a public willing to make allowances for the manipulative shortcomings of its heroine and its director, whose coming-out party as a sunbeam remains subject to blackouts.

Three stars
TITLE: “Amelie”
RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting violence in a mostly fanciful and facetious context)
CREDITS: Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Screenplay by Guillaume Laurant and Mr. Jeunet. In French with English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes

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