Amelie came out in 2001. Seventeen years have passed and I have yet to see another film that captures the magic of cinema as well. 2001 was the year I graduated from high school and the year I started taking screenwriting seriously and that was in no small part as a direct result of watching this masterpiece.
If you’re not familiar with the magic of Amelie, please watch the trailer below. The sad truth about the trailer is that it paints the film as some kind of weird mystery but the film is really a character study. Nevertheless, there are a couple glimpses towards the end of the trailer that show some of the visual flair that the film has:
Pure Visual Magic
There are a few films that I love to watch again and again because they employ so many different cinematic techniques. Amelie is one of them (another would be Moulin Rouge). There are brilliant uses of crane shots, 3D animation, compositing, power window coloring, dolly shots, static shots, handheld shots, steadicam – almost every cinematic technique I can think of is employed throughout Amelie.
The techniques don’t come off as something used to show off, but rather really feel like the director simply chose the most appropriate way to tell the story in every given scene and although the audience is aware they are watching a movie, it’s very easy to get lost in Amelie’s imaginative world.
The color of the film is also breathtaking. In 2001 digital color was still a very new process but this film took full advantage of it. The saturation and vibrance in the color in Amelie is absolutely stunning. It has the pop of a Tim Burton film with none of the kiche. It’s just a heightened reality where colors are more vivid and is a true sight to behold.
An unforgettable score
The score for this film will knock your socks off. Yann Tiersen created something that instantly feels like childhood. With the use of an accordion, some bells and other igneous instrumentation, Tiersen is able to capture the mind of a child but with the layered complexity of an adult. While the music is able to evoke love, heartbreak, tragedy and ecstacy it’s always done within the framework of innocence that simply transports the viewer into another world.
The score was so good in fact that a couple of the tracks from the film were used in another film shortly after the release of Amelie called Goodbye Lenin. Yann Tiersen fits into the category of composers for me who knows how to delineate human emotion. Just like a genuine smile is an instant visual cue for happiness, some of Tiersen’s scores are instantly recognizable as tragic, playful, hopeful etc. The ability to pinpoint emotions through music so effortlessly is no doubt why the filmmakers of Goodbye Lenin chose to license the soundtrack of another movie for their own – it was just that damn good.
A sucker for love stories
I remember being a hopeless romantic when I graduated high school. In 2001, when the movie was released, the idea of falling in love and starting a family was up there with winning the lottery for me. There was magic and mystery and excitement. After having four kids, a mortgage and private school tuition it feels a lot more like combat than the candle-lit vision I had in my head, but still when rewatching Amelie there are moments where I get caught up in the idea of falling in love.
Interestingly enough most of Amelie is not spend falling in love. The movie is more concerned with Amelie’s happiness and the way she interacts with all the characters in her life than it is with her finding her soulmate – but she represents such love and innocence that the audience subconsciously questions why she hasn’t been blessed with finding her one true love about halfway through the movie.
Amelie is the beautiful, sweet girl next door with a wild imagination who you want to set up on a date. I know there are a couple people in my wife and my’s life where we are desperate to find them their match just because we love them so much we want to see them happy – and Amelie is the cinematic manifestation of that person.
The playfulness of the cinema matched the character
What’s perhaps most incredible about the film is that the director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, found a story where his flare for special effects and wild camera work felt like it enhanced the movie more than it distracted it. Jeunet is known for his cinematic flamboyance with films like City of Los Children, Delicatessen, and Micmacs. Unfortunately, he usually misses the mark, but Amelie hits the bullseye dead center.
The reason the camera moves and special fx are so welcomed in this story is because we are seeing the world through the mind of a whimsical lead character and seeing her world this way allows us to better understand her. I wish Jeunet can find another character or story where this type of cinematic language can work because it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it used anywhere nearly as well – even by Jeunet himself.
A European sensibility that was personally refreshing
The other thing that was refreshing for me about the film was the European sensibility. There was something so distinctly French about the film and yet because the characters were treated with such respect they were as relatable as any character from a US movie I’ve ever seen. The music is French, the setting is French, the idiosyncrasies and world-views are often French (there’s one scene where Amelie imagines 15 orgasms in a blazing fast montage that is hysterical and non-sexual), and yet because we’re invited into the heart of Amelie you feel like you know her as well as you know yourself.
What was great about the European sensibility in particular for me though, was the idea that there is no part of life that is taboo to cover. You can have a whimsical comedy and talk about orgasms without it being pornographic or gratuitous, you can make suggestive remarks and still maintain that childlike level of joy and curiosity about the world.
Also, unlike most American films the characters all live in somewhat modest surroundings and yet none of them have great business aspirations for private jets, bigger homes, or expensive toys. Everyone in this film is happy or at least accepting of their financial status and is focused more on filling their lives with love. Unfortunately, being in Los Angeles I’ve spent most of my adult life worrying about finances and my scripts have often been burdened with the same concerns. It was nice to revisit a film where it’s not mentioned, not even once.