During the filming of Gigi, Maurice Chevalier took a first run at "Thank Heaven For Little Girls" and then turned to the song's lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner. "How was I?" he asked.
"Perfect," said Lerner. "Every word."
"No, no," said Chevalier. "Did I sound French enough?"
A couple of days ahead of Bastille Day, that's what I went looking for for our Saturday movie date: something that's French enough. Not from the Gigi/American in Paris/Can-Can era. That's too easy. But something of more recent vintage... And then I remembered Amélie from 2001. Amélie is more than French enough. By Maurice Chevalier standards, it's so French it could be American. It's the kind of valentine to Paris Hollywood used to make, thereby freeing up the natives to concentrate on gloomier fare.
Montmartre cafés? Check.
Street markets? Check.
Cobbles, mopeds? Check, check.
No buildings older than the 19th century, no music newer than 1936? Absolument.
Leslie Caron? Er, well, she's getting on a bit now but we've got the next best thing in Audrey Tautou - big brown eyes under a brunette bob, gamin, pixieish, the same kind of strangely sexless child-woman as Mlle Caron in Gigi or An American in Paris. She winds up falling for a guy who works in a sex shop and is asked whether she is, ahem, shaved, but, despite these concessions to grubby modernity, Miss Tautou seems as chastely detached from sex as Caron was from the discreet grandes horizontales of her day.
The Americans no longer make films like that, so there's no reason why the French shouldn't grab a bit of the action. Amélie tells the story of Amélie, from birth - in fact, from conception; indeed, from the relevant sperm's expeditionary thrust up the fallopian tube one day in 1973 - through childhood to her young adult life as a waitress in Montmartre who feels a sudden "urge to help mankind". So she does by re-ordering the lives of those around her as well as her own and thus creating her own reality, albeit one that approximates to a very heightened and stylized French movie. The film is set in 1997, in the month following the death of the Princess of Wales ("Laddy Dee," as the French say), but in a Paris notably lacking in any Dodis or other visible minorities.
This prompted some critics to disdain it as propaganda for the Front National. It would be fairer to say that, in his general avoidance of high-rise housing estates, the Périphérique, fast-food joints et al, JeanPierre Jeunet is merely doing what Richard Curtis does to London in Notting Hill, Love Actually, etc, and taking a Four Croissants and a Baguette approach to contemporary cinematic romance.
Amélie is a feelgood film in the sense that it feels good about the things French films usually make you feel bad about: what would in normal circumstances usher in prolonged existential gloom is here played for laughs. As a little girl, Amélie yearns to be hugged by her doctor father, but he only touches her during her monthly medical check-up. During this rare physical contact, her heart beats the faster, and as a result he diagnoses a serious coronary defect and keeps her away from school and the company of other children. Her mother is killed when a suicidal Québécois tourist lands on her from a great height. So Amélie gets a job in a café where her colleagues and regulars all lead sad, isolated, festering lives of quiet desperation."'Life is but a draft," sighs the bar's failed author, "a long rehearsal for a show that will never play."
All of this is a non-stop gagfest, and the early jokes - especially the little girl's sabotage of her neighbor's TV - are wonderfully liberating, as if Jeunet is working off the accumulated burden of years of sitting through generic French crud. Amélie's father, for example, has always yearned to travel, but his gardening and home improvements tie him to the house. In the normal course of events, this would be cause for some brooding meditations on a repressed, shuttered-down existence. But instead Amélie steals his favorite garden gnome, and gets a stewardess friend to take the gnome abroad, photographing him in Red Square, in front of the Empire State Building, etc, and mailing the holiday snaps back to papa, to tempt him to join his prodigal lawn ornament.
On its original release I saw the film with a francophone audience in Québec and I couldn't help noticing the laughs thin out as the movie goes on. This isn't because it's getting any more serious, but rather because its relentless quirkiness starts to exhaust you. The bit where our heroine stands on the roof and wonders how many women in Paris are having orgasms is cute: Jeunet pitches us into a hectic nano-second montage of heaving flesh, after which Amélie announces the final score - "Quinze": 15.
But over time the stylistic devices - the heightened colors, talking animals, crosscut visual gags - are so mannered that it makes Amélie's breezy free-spiritedness seem artificial and contrived. A lot of critics and even a few real moviegoers fell in love with Audrey Tautou back in 2001, but with hindsight it settles into a bit of a one-note performance and helps explain why the global stardom she seemed on the cusp of puttered out after her role as the girl in The Da Vinci Code. The final section of the film - in which boy-meets-girl is endlessly deferred - is the worst, and the physical chemistry between Amélie and her lover Nino (a blank Matthieu Kassovitz) has all the warmth and intimacy of the Charles and Di's last Australian tour. But Jeunet's evocation and retooling of an old-time Parisian movie playground is affectionate and endearing, and very appropriate for the fête nationale.