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.
For anyone loath to sign on to the Godiva-voltage sweetness of Amélie, there’s a simple antidote: Mulholland Drive. Playing dark knight to Jeunet’s virginal white one, David Lynch returns here to the pre-Straight Story vein of perversity that he mined for so long. It’s a place where sweetness is preyed upon by maggots, where the dice are loaded and no one’s hands are clean. Lynch polished his theme of innocence confronted by unspeakable evil in Blue Velvet, where youngsters Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern battled to free Isabella Rossellini from the grasp of psychotic evildoer Dennis Hopper. Twin Peaks introduced the moral and supernatural parlor games that Lynch has pretty much owned ever since: small towns in the grip of conspiracy, characters with secret lives, and forces of evil that might somehow be circumvented but probably never defeated. Basically, everyone’s lying and nobody can escape.
Mulholland Drive is a fable of two women beset by mysteries. One blond, one brunette; one innocent, one not. The dark locale to counterbalance Montmartre? Los Angeles, of course–equally magical but dangerously so. Instead of sunshine, we get noir. Lynch wastes no time in having fun as he sends the luscious brunette Rita (Laura Harring) on the road to near-death in a car driven by hit men working for an unknown client. An amnesiac survivor, she takes refuge in an empty apartment. Of course, it’s not empty for long. Along comes Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), a corn-fed blonde straight out of Deep River, Ontario, trailing the faint scent of Lynch’s Twin Peaks ingénue Laura Palmer. Betty seems as innocent as Amélie and just as ready to throw herself into helping to sort out someone else’s fate. And Rita? Well, her hair color alone marks her as untrustworthy for this particular sort of coded intrigue. Like a couple of sexy, breast-enhanced Girl Scouts, the pair sets off to solve the mystery. What happened to Rita, and why? Who was after her, and are they still? Like Rita and Betty, the audience has to play detective. And be prepared for the red herrings.
Mulholland Drive was originally meant as a television series, where Lynch might have spun its narrative into multiple complications week after week. Here, truncated into the ruthless logic of a finite cinematic form, it builds its meaning into a jigsaw puzzle of cinematic references. The brunette’s name, Rita, is filched from a Gilda poster. Betty could be straight out of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. An elderly, excessively enthusiastic, suspiciously helpful couple who share a taxi with Betty from the airport must be on loan from Rosemary’s Baby. Betty’s apartment, on loan from Aunt Ruth, could have been lifted from any postwar LA film noir, the kind peopled by unsavory men and untrustworthy women. For authoritative cinematic history, look no further than Coco, the landlady of the apartment complex. She’s played by veteran actress Ann Miller. A living footnote, Miller was an RKO contract player from the age of 14, an ingénue in Stage Door in 1937, a dancer at MGM in its golden age of musicals and a star on Broadway. Her presence functions as legible commentary: With what she knows, no wonder her character is suspicious and prone to offering unsolicited advice.
Despite the film’s considerable length, time flies as the audience is kept busy poring over the clues littering the subplots. One involves a self-important movie director named Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) who lives high off the hog until he’s betrayed by his wife (with Billy Ray Cyrus, for gawd’s sake) and threatened by the mob to hire a particular actress, or else. Then there’s the Winkie’s diner that one terrified guy has seen in his nightmares so many times that he finally goes there to eat. And there’s a nightspot that Rita somehow remembers, El Club Silencio, where she and Betty witness a full-throttle rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” lip-synched in Spanish. This over-determined show-stopper is vintage Lynch, combining the pleasurable and the ominous with the savoir-faire of a bartender who knows full well that his cocktail is lethal.
Mulholland Drive has all the trappings of a fairy tale, from the monster hiding out back to the princess who’s in danger. There’s even a magic key and a magic box. When the two are combined, everyone is thrown into an alternate reality, where the actors are the same but their characters are completely different. There, good and evil are scrambled. The rules change, time runs backward and our hard-earned holdings fall subject to fraud. Have I mentioned that the film manages to seduce us and humble us, one after the other, with its cleverness?
If, in the end, Mulholland Drive is too clever by half (the final section really, really doesn’t make sense), no matter. Lynch’s superb command of mise en scène makes his images and situations their own reward, rendering even the simplest gesture creepy and imbuing any innocence with evil. Lynch’s ending even takes the audience by surprise, leading moviegoers to ascribe its crossover plots to the effects of parallel universes or the unreliable testimony of self-serving narrators. So what if it ultimately makes a terribly imperfect sense? God is in the details, and its details are sublime.