If Paris were destroyed tomorrow and the recipe for true love lost, archeologists could reconstruct both to perfection from just a reel of “Amelie From Montmartre.” Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s fresh, funny, exquisitely bittersweet tour de force, about a lass who makes sly incursions into the lives of her neighbors, is ambitious yet intimate, defiantly personal yet gleefully universal. Sold to most territories (including Miramax for the U.S.) on the basis of a four-minute sample reel, delightful pic opens today in Gaul on the crest of the most ecstatic advance reviews and word-of-mouth for a French pic in recent memory. This year’s Cannes fest is to hold a special outdoor screening of the pic, free to the public, on the evening of May 13.
Jeunet’s movie seems primed to establish a before-and-after vocabulary in much the same way “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” gave birth to the term “Tarantino wannabe.” From now on, any director who tries to distill the brash core of effective whimsy into one sublime package but doesn’t quite hit the mark could be dubbed a “Jeunet wannabe.”
There’s also an additional cause for celebration. Twenty-three-year-old lead thesp Audrey Tautou — the youngest cosmetician in Tonie Marshall’s “Venus Beauty Institute,” and the girl in Laurent Firode’s “The Beating of the Butterfly’s Wings” last year — is a delight to watch and root for as she makes creative adjustments to the lives of her Montmartre neighbors, all of whom are played by character actors at one with their peculiar roles.
Bulk of pic is set in a short period surrounding Princess Diana’s fatal car crash in August 1997, but venture successfully cultivates a timeless quality. Jeunet and co-scripter Guillaume Laurant set the bar for visual and situational imaginativeness at Olympian heights but clear it with ease over and over again. Go out for popcorn and you’re likely to miss enough quirky little touches to make at least one award-winning short. But the beauty of the film’s mechanism — an accretion of rapid but perfectly observed wacky ingredients — is that every poignant or silly little detail contributes to the story, which seems to discover a twinkly new constellation in the annals of star-crossed lovers.
The far-fetched circumstances of the upbringing of Amelie (Tautou), an only child, are laid out in 10 minutes by an omniscient narrator (Andre Dussollier) with a buoyant series of vignettes. After her physician father mistakenly diagnosed a heart irregularity, Amelie was educated at home. Her mother died young and, as Amelie never had playmates, she created a rich fantasy life.
At adulthood, Amelie settles in the Montmartre district of Paris and waitresses in an old-fashioned cafe with an idiosyncratic staff and regulars. These include owner Suzanne (Claire Maurier), whose theory about surreptitiously provoking surefire romance is tested by Amelie on two unlikely candidates: Georgette (Isabelle Nanty), a tic-laden hypochondriac who mans the tobacco counter, and Joseph (Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon), a jealous, borderline malevolent customer who chronically pops the plastic on bubble wrap.
Neighbors of note include a painter, Dufayel (Serge Merlin), who lives in a padded apartment as his bones are so fragile they snap at the slightest pressure. His groceries are delivered by Lucien (Jamel Debbouze), a pleasant lad who’s harassed by his boss, Collignon (Urbain Cancellier).
When Amelie discovers a tin box of boyhood treasures concealed in her bathroom wall, she decides to track down the now-grown owner and anonymously return the knickknacks. The result convinces her she can change lives with a few judicious tweaks to the environments of those around her.
Whether pranks (to impart a lesson) or creative social work (to boost morale), Amelie’s adjustments to reality are wildly entertaining. She pulls a mercilessly funny stunt on her father (Rufus) and initiates a superb development in the dreary life of her building’s long-suffering concierge (Yolande Moreau).
But her toughest case concerns Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz, a helmer in his own right), who makes the rounds of the city’s coin-operated photo booths collecting discarded ID photos.
Jeunet, who co-crafted “Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children” with Marc Caro before helming the 1997 “Alien Resurrection,” has always opted for the total control a studio setting affords. Here, however, he ventures out into the real Paris, working with his crack effects specialists to coax every micron of latent charm from some 80 Paris locations.
From the tchotchke-fied studio of Amelie’s concierge to the digitally assisted cloud formations overhead, every frame is an instant lesson in architecture or design as a reflection of character — of a city as well as of the people in it. Even the most casual viewers will feel as if they’ve borrowed an artist’s eyes for two hours.
The lugubrious quality of Jeunet’s previous work is gone, but an agreeably heart-tugging melancholy remains. Traces of the joyous gravity perfected long ago by composer Erik Satie are alive and well in Yann Tiersen’s lilting score.