Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Amélie," or "Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain," is perhaps one of the forefathers of the modern manic pixie dream girl epoch, using magical realism, surrealism, satire, and dry ironic comedy to comment on life's idiosyncrasies, such as death, heartbreak, and love. Although I wholeheartedly agree that the film is technically perfect, with the cinematography, acting, style, setting, costuming, production, composition, and music all being wonderful, I still believe the film is deeply flawed. I have watched it at least 20 times now. Suffice it to say, each time I watch it I enjoy it less. Let me explain why.
The first problem has to do with the supposed "shyness" of Amélie and her painful hesitancy to engage with the real world. The film asserts that the 23-year-old is too shy and too fanciful to deal with a "reality check," instead choosing to explore her inner worlds and her boundless imagination. The biggest and most obvious conflict – one that the film literally hinges its conflict upon – is that it's simply not true. Amélie socializes a lot in the film. She leads a fairly normal life. She goes to work and talks gaily and eagerly to her neighbors. She chases strangers all over the city in her restless search for Dominique Bretodeau – and is shown dating and engaging in intimate relations with men almost immediately in the film. Surely someone truly painfully shy would have extreme difficulty doing any of this, and would probably just stay home and consider the whole affair a pointless and gainless ruse. Halfway through, the film attempts to handwave this away by explaining that she simply can't talk to men she's in love with, but she's not in love with Bretodeau and she manages to nod and smirk at him. How come she can have sex with a guy but not talk to a guy?
The film also seems to take the easy way out by having the attractive protagonist surrounded by middle-aged and geriatric supporting cast, and it's ultimately jarring to see a young woman not surrounded by her peers. And, of course, the supporting cast is not only bland and uninteresting, but they are also denied satisfying conclusions to their respective arcs. Café-owner Suzanne, bone-cracking waitress Gina, Raymond the "Glass Man," the hapless hypochondriac Georgette, the perpetually jealous lover Joseph and the ever-bumbling Lucien – all seem to go nowhere within the film and wind up back where they started by the end. If this was the intention of the director, I fail to see why. Even Nino, Amélie's love interest, doesn't grow or evolve in any way – and how could he? We never get to know him at all. We know that he's somewhat cute, somewhat quirky, doesn't keep girlfriends for long, and Amélie has an affinity for him. But why? We don't know. It's never explained.
The film, for some reason, insists that Amélie has no ability to live in the real world, even though she clearly can and does. She works at a coffee shop, she pays rent, she cooks. True, she can't watch television without getting absorbed – nor can she listen to the musings of others without involving herself in their imaginations – but she can survive just fine. I fail to see how her fanciful nature impedes her natural life in any way.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the film, no matter how many times I watch it, are the characters of Raymond Dufayel – the Glass Man – and Lucien, the grocer's dim-witted right-hand man. Not only are their characters befuddling, but the interactions between these two are also constantly soured by their bitter, antagonistic relationship. The Glass Man is portrayed as crotchety and reclusive, but he's also a bit of an asshole, bullying the simple Lucien for his lack of artistic ability and stamping out his joy as he blasphemes his impish boss. Lucien, on the other hand, is portrayed as tactless, awkward, and unaware – this is never explained, and every time I watch it I just assume he is intellectually impaired in some way – but at the very end, Lucien is hinted at being a perverted peeping-Tom, attempting to watch (and record!) the consummation between Amélie and Nino. All of the interactions between the Glass Man and Lucien just put a damper on the film. They never appear to genuinely like each other or care about each other, and the Glass Man seems to be more annoyed and irritated by Lucien than anything else. I didn't understand the point of including these scenes at all. They are tonally jarring when compared to the rest of the film.
For me, the first 30 minutes of the film are perfect in style, tone, and storytelling. The story moves swiftly along, revealing the tragic strangeness of Amélie's lonely childhood, her adult life, and her mission to do good in the world. (On that note, I am left to wonder if it was really a "good" or "noble" act for Amélie to forge a letter from her landlady's deceased ex-husband….but I digress.) The events leading up to her discovery and return of Bretodeau's box full of his childhood memories are masterfully portrayed. The sequence where she sweeps the blind man around Paris, describing the vivid sights, smells, and actions of the town – a joy to behold. But after this, I find, every time, that the pacing of the film just withers and dies.
One of the most obvious glaring defects of this otherwise perfect film is the bad CGI. The special effects are nothing short of awful, unnecessary, and, now, extremely dated. The bad CGI is used to highlight, I assume, "pivotal" moments in the story, such as Amélie's heart beating as she encounters Nino, the copy of Collingnon's apartment key nestled in her pocket, the blind man's 'ascension,' Nino's reaction to the ghost mystery man, and Amélie's imaginary friends (taking the shape of animal figurines and portraits in her bedroom) waxing poetic about how she must be in love. None of this was necessary for the film, and the audience did not need to be handheld through such obvious key moments. We see Amélie making a copy of Collingnon's key – we see the ghost man revealing himself as the mechanic, we can see that the blind man enjoyed Amélie's run about town, and we already know that Amélie has a 'heart defect.' None of these cheesy, dated, bizarre effects add anything of value to the film. They actually only serve to cheapen the experience.
The love story between Amélie and Nino is aesthetically and rhythmically pleasing but ultimately unsatisfying. The two never interact directly and never speak to each other. Amélie works to avoid interacting with Nino, yet sleeps with him without any hesitance or difficulty. This leads me to wonder what exactly attracted Nino to Amélie, aside from her looks. They don't know each other apart from a nonsensical superficial goose chase across Paris – and yes, it is cute and charming, but it doesn't spell love, at least, not for me, if the two can't even exchange words on camera.
All this said … I appreciate what the film was trying to do. I appreciate the slow, deliberate pacing, the meticulous attention to detail, the vibrant and consistent color palette. I appreciate the story, the setting, the acting, the superfluous, and ridiculous aspects. I think this is technically an excellent film, but every time I sit down to watch "Amélie," I always find myself coming away feeling exceedingly empty. Life is not a fairy tale, and this lesson is hammered in repeatedly within the film. Every other love story depicted other than Amélie's fails abjectly. If I turn off my brain and simply admire the cinematography, editing, stylistic choices, and composition, I can ignore these glaring flaws if only for a minute. But this does nothing to absolve the nagging nothingness and emptiness I continue to absorb from the film. Amélie does good, but to what end? Amélie falls in love, but to what end? The Glass Man paints Renoir every year, but to what end? Everything drones on into nothingness. If this is what Jean-Pierre Jeunet intended then, bravo! If not, I fail to understand what was intended. After 20 watches, I am about ready to throw in the towel. Perhaps I will never know. This film is excellent, yet feels so, so frivolous and empty. I cannot express it any more succinctly than that.