Denis Bourdon - firstname.lastname@example.org
Los Angeles Times - Calendar Live - Monday, October 29, 2001
Treating Paris as a City of Light
France is mesmerized by the film "Amélie," about a do-gooder in Montmartre. Will the U.S. go for it?
The reason for their unbridled enthusiasm is that the Café des Deux Moulins (the Two Windmills Cafe) is a key location in "Amélie," the most successful—and beloved—French film in years. Purely in box-office terms, it has been an astonishing success for a domestic movie, having grossed around $41million since opening here earlier this year, easily outstripping this summer's big Hollywood offerings, "Shrek," "Planet of the Apes" and "Jurassic Park 3."
But beyond mere numbers, "Amélie" is a cultural phenomenon. It is the most talked-about film here in years. Commentators of all political shades have analyzed it; President Jacques Chirac asked for a private screening at the Elysée Palace and loved it. Now Miramax is hoping some of that magic rubs off on American audiences when the film opens in Los Angeles and New York on Friday. (The film rolls out nationwide later in November.)
At first glance it seems an unlikely film to wield such influence. An innocuous romantic comedy with fantasy elements, "Amélie" was written and directed by one of France's leading filmmakers, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. After enjoying two worldwide art-house hits, "Delicatessen" (1991) and "City of Lost Children" (1995), which he co-directed with Marc Caro, Jeunet moved temporarily to Hollywood to direct the fourth film in the "Alien" franchise, "Alien: Resurrection" (1997).
"Amélie" stars Audrey Tautou, 23, a striking, dark-haired French beauty with big, plaintive eyes who has elicited critical comparisons with Audrey Hepburn and Juliette Binoche. Tautou's Amélie is an oddball character with a strange childhood: When she was young, her mother was killed by a suicidal tourist from Quebec who fell from the roof of Notre-Dame, her father developed a strange affection for garden gnomes, and she retreated into a fantasy world. (All these events are filmed at breakneck speed and accompanied by a droll voice-over, forming a prelude to the film.)
As an adult, working as a waitress in the Deux Moulins, Amélie hits on her life's mission: spreading happiness around Montmartre. She devises complex schemes of random kindness to cheer up neighbors and strangers. She also discreetly pursues Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), a shy young man who works part time in a sex shop and on a ghost-train ride at a fair; his hobby is collecting portraits discarded from photo booths at rail stations. This quirky, upbeat little story is set exclusively in Paris, and Jeunet has effectively created a cinematic love letter to the city. It looks ravishing.
"It's a Paris of dreams," mused Jeunet, 46, over breakfast at a chic brasserie on the Champs-Elysées. "It's not realistic. It was a Paris I had in my head. When I first came to Paris, I was 20, and I saw Paris just like this." He spread his arms wide to indicate the opulent surroundings.
"When I was in Los Angeles making 'Alien: Resurrection,' I had to stay 20 months, and I missed it. I kept thinking, 'Ah! Paris, Paris!' I wanted to make a film about it. But I had a fake Paris in mind, an idealized Paris."
His affectionate portrait of the city is among the reasons Jeunet cites for the film's success. And the others? "First, everyone needs a positive story," he said. "Every human being has something good inside. It's rare [in film] to talk about those good things inside .... It's easier and fashionable to talk of violence and guns."
Jeunet also believes audiences like "Amélie" because he has inserted into the story sequences involving small, pleasurable things in his life: goldfish, garden gnomes, skipping stones across water, plunging one's hand into a sackful of grain, cracking the surface of crème brûlée with the back of a spoon.
Even so, Jeunet is amazed by the success of his film, which in France has the longer title "Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain." "For me, it was a small French film," he noted, smiling. "I wanted to have the freedom to work with my friends, in my own language, with French actors. It was so important for me to tell this story. I wanted to make a cheap film, and in fact the budget was $10 million. That's not cheap in France, but not huge either."
Jeunet has had an extraordinary response from the public in the form of letters and e-mails: "I keep meeting people who tell me they have seen the film five times, nine times, 12 times." He was amazed that President Chirac would personally ask to see the film: "When it was over, he came up to me, punched me on the shoulder and said, 'Magnifique, man!'"
A Populist Favorite, a Subject of Debate
The fact that "Amélie" was not selected for this year's Cannes Film Festival confirmed it as a populist favorite rather than a film approved by a remote elite. But as its popularity mushroomed, political commentators and intellectuals began to debate it. "We had 450 good reviews and only six negative ones," Jeunet recalled. "This is unheard of."
Yet those negative ones made their mark. They mostly came from left-wing critics who favor a more rigorous, realistic style of filmmaking, one not indebted to Hollywood—and Jeunet had been in their sights since he made a Hollywood movie. One critic described "Amélie" as "EuroDisney in Montmartre." A writer for the Communist daily L'Humanité accused Jeunet of creating "a postcard Montmartre, presumably aimed at seducing an American audience fond of the picturesque."
The review that stung, though, was in the left-wing daily paper Libération, whose critic Serge Kaganski attacked Jeunet's dreamy, nostalgic vision of Paris as "white supremacist." He thought the film resembled a video for the country's right-wing National Front Party, decrying the fact that black characters were largely absent, and that the one Arab character has a French name, Lucien.
"Critics say that nostalgia is from the right, that it's fascist," Jeunet commented with a shrug. "Well, yes, I admit it, it's a fake Paris." He leaned forward, mock serious: "You have to tell the American people it's fake. In Paris we have traffic jams and, yes, it rains.
"I don't agree that the film has an American style. Some [critics] prefer militant movies. They prefer a very simple style or no style, bad lighting. They are very aggressive. They say ["Amélie"] is like a commercial. But commercials can be very interesting in terms of style."
What's intriguing about "Amélie" is that it is spearheading an impressive upsurge in the fortunes of French films. In the first six months of this year, they captured an unprecedented 53% share of their domestic marketplace, compared with 38% for Hollywood imports. This has triggered a mood of buoyant optimism in Paris industry circles.
Patrick Lamassour of Unifrance, a company financed by the Ministry of Culture here to promote French films, said, "We usually get between 30% and 33% of the market, so these results are exceptional. It just so happened there were a lot of entertaining French comedies and action films earlier this year: 'Amélie,' of course, but also 'The Brotherhood of the Wolf' and 'The Closet.' And our more artistic films, like 'The Taste of Others' and 'Under the Sand,' have also performed strongly.
"We regard 'Amélie' as a crossover. It's entertaining and commercial, but it's also an auteur's film, shot distinctively."
Despite this shift in film culture, the great veteran directors of French cinema are still working busily. Claude Chabrol has had two films released in the last year; Jean-Luc Godard's "Eloge d'Amour" played at the Cannes Film Festival. Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer have new films out in Paris. But a younger generation of French filmmakers, influenced by Hollywood, has learned to make internationally commercial films that sell widely in foreign territories yet remain distinctively French. "They're genre films with a European touch," said Lamassour.
Jeunet certainly falls into this category. "For the first time, we have the same qualities as American movies in terms of sound, technique, artistic direction, cinematography," he observed. "That's pretty new. When we made 'Delicatessen' 10 years ago, it was difficult to get efficient sound."
Though Jeunet has been invited back to Hollywood, he intends to take his time and decide what film he will make next. In keeping with the new excitement in French film circles, it will almost certainly be in his native country. "In France we are so free," he said. "In America there are 250 people in your crew. In France it's 40 people, and we get the same amount of work done in a day. And here I get final cut. An American director can't imagine how free I am. In Hollywood, even someone like David Fincher ['Fight Club'] doesn't get final cut. Can you imagine?"
Amélie has become a feminine romantic icon, and Tautou a huge star. But can Jeunet's film now go on to conquer foreign territories? "Well, I'm not sure," he shrugged. "I didn't expect it to be so successful in France. But you know, the soul, the human spirit, they're the same everywhere. So why not?"