Let’s Analyze Foreign Charmer Amelie
See How Raised Stakes and New Information Could Have Made a Good Movie Even Better
So, Amelie deals with a woman that was denied basic human contact as a child. The combined neuroses of Amelie’s parents confined her to a life of isolation where she relied on her own imagination for companionship. Now, as an adult, Amelie so fears person-to-person intimacy that she spends all her energy helping others to connect with new loves, hidden passions and forgotten treasures. Of course, Amelie avoids visible recognition for her actions by manipulating people towards their respective life changes from behind the scenes. The movie gets off to an engaging, thematically specific start by making seemingly irreverent digressions into all of the characters’ personal likes and dislikes (e.g. Amelie’s mother derives secret joy out of cleaning out her purse). In truth, these asides are very relevant to the story’s main theme since such private indulgences reflect Amelie’s life of self-made happiness in hiding. The precious whimsy quite often gives way to moments of startling honesty – most notably when Amelie’s first target reacts to his miraculously recovered boyhood relics by vocalizing repressed regret over having lost touch with his estranged daughter. In this manner, people’s rediscovered secret passions allow other feelings to percolate to the surface – feelings necessary for freedom from life stagnancy. These secondary personalities become a poignant mirror for Amelie’s own unspoken disconnection from self.
Writer/director Jean-Pierre Jeunet falters, however, by never forcing Amelie to confront her own life unhappiness with the same sense of emotional accountability. Jeunet becomes so preoccupied with the story’s outward cleverness that Amelie’s ultimate confrontation with her own fear of intimacy gets relegated to a most perfunctory moment just before the climax, one characterized by a single banally picturesque tear rolling down her perfectly made-up cheek. Where is Amelie’s deep regret? Where is her rage at herself and at her father for living a life of seclusion? Where is the deep, bellowing grief? Why are other characters afforded the opportunity for open expression and not Amelie? We pretty much get all of the dramatic information by the first half of the movie – Amelie fears the intimacy of true love, she would prefer to deflect love by helping others. That’s it. That is the point of every single scene and we receive that slim piece of information over and over with almost no variance whatsoever. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fact that the second half of the movie actually repeats nearly identical scenes – Amelie breaks into the mean grocer’s apartment and meddles with his belongings twice, Amelie rebuffs the invalid painter’s accusations of deflecting her own issues thrice with no break in her emotional armor, the café stalker and café pharmacist eye each other and then have sex and then fall in love in a series of similarly whimsical scenes, Amelie leads her potential lover on with teasing clues that certainly progress in showiness but never in emotional content.
If Jeunet had really desired to explore the full extent of his own dramatic premise, he would raise the dramatic stakes by forcing Amelie to take progressive steps out into the world throughout the entire movie. Why stall for time when Amelie could interact with her new beau before the very end of the film – first a verbal exchange, then a kiss, perhaps a small emotional concession, maybe even having sex – and then have her flee the actual reality of love? Amelie could maintain her precocious distance by initially pursuing the fantasy of new love and then attempt to keep the romance on a most whimsically superficial level. But then, when either she or her beau show the slightest sign of vulnerable humanity, she could run for the hills – and actually risk losing something that she has gained.
At a certain point, every active hero must take forward steps that put him at risk but closer to a desired goal. Good drama translates to a hero’s aggressive pursuit of a defined want – even when it threatens to jeopardize his overall happiness; it is the sudden understanding that their previously unhealthy way of living no longer works that empowers heroes towards breakdowns and, subsequently, breakthroughs. Unfortunately, Amelie does nothing to earn her transformation – she never confronts her father, never confronts her own fears of her own worthlessness, she never really puts herself at risk with regards to her boyfriend. Hell, Amelie never even has to take accountability for her manipulative streak. Not one of the locals discovers that she has been meddling with their lives, she never has to pay a real price for her destructive behavior. The movie fails to raise the dramatic stakes since it never puts Amelie in jeopardy of losing anything of substance – her friends and family remain largely ignorant of her meddlesome ways and her romantic interest remains only a peripheral possibility until we learn in the dénouement that they have in fact stayed together.
I can already hear the collective rebuttal, “But this is a fairy tale! It’s not meant to convey dramatic anger or grief!” Such arguments don’t hold water because they assume that “breakdown” has to look like an explosive turn into melodrama. Not so. Billy Wilder was the King of Romantic Comedies and understood the necessity of increased dramatic stakes – Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina (one of the obvious models for Amelie) actually tries to commit suicide in the same-titled movie – albeit in a visually comical fashion that conveys lighthearted pathos; she additionally lands Bogart and then loses him all over again before their final reunion at film’s end; she jeopardizes his and her standing with the wealthy elite; and she routinely sacrifices her own sense of worth by committing and recommitting to the fantasy version of her Sophisticated Self. The movie maintains magical whimsy because of Wilder’s commitment to Sabrina’s progressively dark split identity that puts love, family and self at risk. And that’s what separates a true classic romantic comedy from a likeably clever but ultimately repetitive no-risk exercise like Amelie.