Film Review: Amelie (2001)
Sony Picture Classics
Over 20 years ago, the world was introduced to the quirky, sweet, and lonely Parisian waitress, Amélie Poulain. She turned the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre upside down when, after discovering a mysterious box of childhood treasures belonging to the previous tenant of her apartment, she decided to dedicate her life to helping others all while ignoring her own needs. Audiences in France and across the globe fell in love with Amélie and it became one of the highest-grossing French films of all time and even received five Academy Award nominations, something extremely uncommon at that time for foreign language films. Though director Jean Pierre Jeunet left the ceremony that night empty-handed, its mark on cinema is unforgettable. Whether it’s being praised, copied, or critiqued, Amélie is the prototype that any off-the-beaten-path romance must be judged by.

A Different Kind of Romantic Comedy. Its inventive nature proved that a rom-com could still be made in the 21st century. While audiences were in the process of abandoning what used to be highly profitable genres like the musical or the western, it's easy to see how the romantic comedy could have gone that way. At times they are too earnest, unrealistic, and formulaic. Though the 1990s and 2000s saw the release of many commercially successful rom-com, a lot were thoroughly dismissed by critics. Amélie showed that the genre could still be celebrated and even important. Differing from others, Jeunet centers his film on loneliness. He knows how isolated someone can feel even when surrounded by family or friends and even the joys of letting your mind wander when no one’s around. The film is sweet but not saccharine. He manages to create a story that is undeniably optimistic and romantic and doesn’t shy away from the sadness or even malicious nature of the modern world. Jeunet may not prize realism, but that doesn’t mean Amélie doesn’t ring true.

Audrey Tautou. All of these thematic achievements of Jeunet’s script, however, would be irrelevant if it wasn’t for the genius work of its lead actress, Audrey Tautou. Originally discovered by Jean-Pierre Jeunet after he saw her picture on the poster for the French comedy, Venus Beauty Institute, Tautou rightfully made a name for herself with this remarkable performance. Tautou walks a fine line. If she’s too shy and tight-lipped, she runs the risk of turning the movie lifeless. A tad more energy and her performance goes from hilarious to embarrassing, but Tautou makes it all look easy. She’s mischievous and playful, holding a childlike wonderment, but also solemn and deeply troubled. It’s the kind of performance that creates a superstar in any decade, in any country, and in any universe. Her ability to remain a highly sought-after star in France is in no doubt because of her endless charm which doesn’t carry a hint of superficiality.

An Indelible Legacy. Apart from jumpstarting Tautou's career, Amélie has gained a reputation larger than itself. For most foreigners, the red, yellow, and green-tinted images of Paris are the first that come to mind when thinking of this age-old city. Others blame it for the resurgence of odd-ball characters with little substance. However, both of these overreaching ideas are incomplete and ultimately myopic. Amelie is so much more than vibrant colors or fascinating lists of favorite things. While its style is decidedly unique, it is Amélie's unapologetic heart in the face of an increasingly alienating world, that makes it great.

If Amélie is to be blamed for all the lazy copycat films that came after, it should also be honored upon the release of every new, out-of-the-box romance that hits the screens. With ingenuity and a kind of optimism even cynics can’t hate, Jeunet created something larger than life.

Watch Amélie in theaters on Valentine's Day 2024