Lifestyle sections have lately been detailing the public's renewed appetite for comfort food. If that rice-pudding desire translates to the big screen, then cinematic fairy tales that offer the reassurance of a bedtime story should benefit accordingly. Two such concoctions have arrived, one light as brioche and one grimmer than Grimm: Amélie, the latest fable from French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children), and its evil twin, Mulholland Drive, by America's own David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks). Visually dazzling and full of imagination, these fantasies by directors at the top of their game depict invented universes where happiness and unhappiness trade places in a flash and the world as we know it can be transformed by a fall down a rabbit hole.
Amélie owes its incredible success ($40 million in France alone since spring) in no small part to the immense appeal of newcomer Audrey Tautou in the lead role. Her very name invokes the actress with whom she's most likely to be compared--Audrey Hepburn at her Roman Holiday or Breakfast at Tiffany's stage, innocent still and ripe for discovery. For Frenchness, think Juliette Binoche--minus the sex appeal. Add a Louise Brooks haircut, the biggest eyes this side of cartoonland and a sense of prankishness borrowed from the Eloise books. Give the character a Mary Poppins way with magic and a sweetness that her surname ("Poulain" is a brand of chocolate) promises and, bon, there you have her: a child-woman for the ages.
Amélie introduces its heroine as a little girl, imprisoned in a childhood ruled by a remote father who barely touches her and a warped mother who dies when hit by a suicide-bent tourist outside Notre Dame. She quickly grows up into an adorable but shy young woman who works as a waitress in a quintessentially Parisian cafe packed equally with irritable and amiable characters. At home in her garret, she leads a solitary life reading, dreaming, watching television and spying on a neighboring recluse who endlessly repaints Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. On her day off, she visits her daddy, who dotes on a garden shrine to his departed wife, topped by a colorful gnome.
On August 31, 1997, everything in Amélie's oddball universe changes with a thunderbolt: the death of Princess Diana! It is at this very moment that Amélie discovers a small tin box that's been hidden in her apartment for forty years. Inspired by Diana to make a difference in the world, she sets out to track down its owner. Her search is reminiscent of another French film, When the Cat's Away, in which a Parisian damsel sets off on a quest that leads her through the Bastille neighborhood and its picturesque characters. Where that film showed gentrification and evictions, though, this one's a magical mystery tour.
Voilà! Amélie is off and running when her once-upon-a-time boy is reunited with his beloved box of toys. When his destiny changes, so does hers: She commits herself, saintlike, to a life of good deeds. It's impossible not to be charmed by Amélie's missions, like her secret campaign for justice, centered on her mean neighborhood greengrocer who loves to demean his shy Algerian assistant in front of the customers. Amélie secretly copies the merchant's key, then sneaks into his apartment and subtly changes things in a manner calculated to drive him mad--such as replacing his beloved slippers with an identical pair, one size smaller. Amélie's more benign interventions--on behalf of a jilted widow, a hypochondriacal cashier and the reclusive painter--are equally inventive.
Unfortunately, Jeunet doesn't leave well enough alone. Dissatisfied with these minor intrusions, he dictates that Amélie must find love herself. But with whom? Whimsy takes over. Enter one eligible guy, Nino, whose hobby is hunting for torn-up pictures under photo booths in the Paris metro stations when he's not gainfully employed as a porn-shop assistant and funhouse spook. (Nino is played, incidentally, by Mathieu Kassovitz, director of 1995's gritty hit La Haine, a decidedly un-Amélie-like drama about racial tensions in Parisian projects.)
Bien sûr, this is a fairy tale, and so Nino's the one with whom Amélie must fall in love. But then there's the mystery of the stranger whose torn photo keeps turning up. And the mysterious notes delivered to Nino, stipulating mysterious rendezvous. And the paranoiac who stalks his ex-girlfriends with a tape recorder. Oh, there are dozens of zany pranks to escalate the irritation--oops, I mean charm--of Jeunet's conceit.
"Eurodisney in Montmartre" was one European critic's verdict. Actually, it's more like Jeunet let loose in the Disney archives. Piling cartoon references on top of his childhood visions of Paris-then, Jeunet has used a toolbox of stylized sets and special effects to create a world as quirky as his characters. Equally original but less phantasmagorical than the worlds he invented with former collaborator Marc Caro in Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Jeunet here jettisons the nightmarish creatures that made them tick. Amélie's more reality-based world is magical in part because every trace of modernity has been erased. No Pompidou Center or Louvre pyramids intrude on the cityscapes. Virtually no immigrants, either. A glow of burnished memory polishes Montmartre, as its Frencher-than-French denizens, seemingly lifted straight out of some classic prewar French film, go about their pre-2001 lives.
Nobody is going to Amélie, of course, for a taste of realism. Rather, what it offers is a determinedly cinematic world in which references pile upon references to assemble a synthetic universe that resonates emotionally, reeking of familiarity and nostalgia. It is safe to speculate that Jeunet, who returned to France after an unsatisfying Hollywood stint on Alien: Resurrection, felt nostalgic himself for a golden age of French cinema unbeholden to the American movie juggernaut. With the trademark stylistic excess that he honed in his earlier features, and contentedly reunited with a screenwriter and cinematographer from his past, Jeunet has found a way to re-enter his own lost Paris.