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Imagination turns 'Amelie' into delightful game

Friday, November 09, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

In a fit of joy, the title character of the movie "Amelie" takes the arm of a blind man and not only helps him across the street but whisks him along the opposite sidewalk, vividly describing every sight along the way before leaving him somewhat bewildered in front of a train station.


RATING: R for sexual content. Subtitled.

STARRING: Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz.

DIRECTOR: Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

WEB SITE: www.amelie-lefilm.com



The scene is so full of life observed with such precise clarity that it stands as an example of everything we miss in our daily grind, the things we take for granted, the moments that happen in an instant and then evanesce -- an opportunity never to be regained.

The full title of this French delight, now at the Squirrel Hill Theater, translates as "The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain," and it is all about the way one's drab existence can be transformed, how chance can guide destiny (however oxymoronic the concept may sound), how one person can make a difference maybe not in the big picture but certainly in the intimate snapshot of our own lives. And it shows how easy it is not to recognize opportunity when it knocks, or even to pretend we're not home.

The movie begins with an unseen narrator detailing seemingly insignificant incidents down to the exact time they happen -- a fly landing on a street in Montmartre, a man erasing a name from his address book, a sperm fertilizing an egg that results in the birth of a child named Amelie Poulain.

In quick succession, we learn the specific likes and dislikes and quirks of her parents -- a process repeated for most of the film's sprawling collection of supporting characters. Her father is a doctor more comfortable with things than people, her mother a neurotic with delicate nerves. As a result, Amelie creates her own world of the imagination that carries through to adulthood.

A chance incident -- or was it destiny? -- leads to a search for a middle-aged man she doesn't know. Both of their lives will be changed as a result. Amelie (the gamine-like Audrey Tautou) begins to surreptitiously influence the lives of acquaintances, co-workers and other complete strangers, including a strange young man called Nino Quicampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz) who collects discarded pictures at photo booths throughout Paris.

The irony, of course, is that while Amelie sets out to change things for other people, she shies away from the kind of contact that might change things for her. She makes an elaborate game of her pursuits, whether it involves playing Cupid for a co-worker and a customer, getting even with a vile neighborhood grocer or trying to return a book of photos to Nino. She employs cryptic notes and disguises, anonymous phone calls and misleading directions to hook her prey without ever having to make contact.

The only man who sees through her is an elderly neighbor, Dufayel (Serge Merlin), known as the Glass Man because of his fragile physique. He spends his time painting copies of the great masters and is stuck on the figure of a girl holding a glass in Renoir's "Le Dejeuner des canotiers." Dufayel and Amelie turn her into the surrogate through whom they can discuss Amelie's shy unwillingness to take a chance for herself.

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is best known for darker movies, notably "Delicatessen" and "The City of Lost Children." He turns his distinctive style to a more optimistic bent in "Amelie," winner of the People's Choice Award at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. But the despair is just below the surface, in the lonely lives that so many of the characters lead until Amelie comes along to change them.

Like Amelie herself, the movie keeps you at a bit of a distance, the coolness due in part to the way everything turns on the wheel of clockwork destiny. It also lets things wind a little too long -- Amelie's gameplaying gets to the point where it just seems like stubborn teasing after a while.

But moviegoers willing to take a chance on "Amelie" may be fated to come away from it enchanted.

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