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Pixie Paris
Audrey Tautou creates a little magic

BY PETER KEOUGH


Amélie
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Written by Guillaume Laurant and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. With Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz, Rufus, Yolande Moreau, Arthus de Penguern, Urbain Cancellier, Dominique Pino, Isabelle Nanty, Claire Maurier, Jamel Debbouze, and Flora Guiet. A Miramax Zoë Films release. At the Copley Place and the Kendall Square and in the suburbs.

Sweet and flaky though this delicate, photogenic pastry might be, it could use some of the meat and potatoes of director Jean-Pierre Jeunetís breakthrough film, the cult favorite Delicatessen. True, this is an effervescent romantic comedy about the magic of random acts of kindness, whereas the latter was a black comedy about post-apocalyptic cannibalism. But a little bit Audrey Tautouís pear-shaped face and beaming pixie grin goes a long way. Even a glimpse of the mutant fetus from Jeunetís ill-considered Hollywood venture, Alien Resurrection, would be a relief.

Nonetheless, Tautou grew on me as the title heroine, an irresistible waif without love or direction in a giddy Paris filmed in gold-green tints. Like another ambitious, overwrought film, P.T. Andersonís Magnolia, Amélie opens with a brilliant 20 minutes that promise a lot more than the overlong film (in this case, just under two hours) delivers. Collage and assemblage seem Jeunetís métier: in delightfully cut overlapping sequences he patches together Amélieís background in a mosaic of odd details, hilarious lists (the likes and dislikes of selected characters is perhaps the highlight of the film), and glimpses of unexpected pathos (the last upward look of an abandoned goldfish), and unlikely twists of serendipity.

Raised by a cold, melancholy physician father after her motherís untimely death, Amélie drifts with perky amusement and no commitments as a waitress in the Café Deux Moulins until the day in 1997 when she hears the news of Princess Diís death and drops the stopper to a bottle of perfume. This leads her to a loose tile in the bathroom behind which is a tin box of treasures a 10-year-old boy left behind some 40 years earlier. Whereupon she realizes her role in life: to connect people with their dreams and desires, their pasts and futures.

Returning the box to the owner is her first challenge, and its outcome is one of the filmís most moving scenes, a genuinely Proustian moment. The other projects are less satisfying, in particular the filmís centerpiece, which involves Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz, best known as the director of Hate and Crimson Rivers), a fellow lonely soul in the funhouse of Paris. Like Jeunet himself, Nino collects artifacts of human ephemera, his latest being discarded self-portraits from photo booths that he has bound in an album. Amélie bumps into him and their eyes meet.

Actually, they donít: heís spotted the bald stranger whose face has appeared with eerie regularity like a memento mori among the discarded photos, and when he gives chase to this specter, Amélie pursues him, picking up his photo album when he loses it in the confusion. Returning this item proves more complicated, however, than did the tin box. She learns that Nino works part-time in a porn shop and part-time as a skeleton in an amusement park, and this intimidating combination of love and death compels her, and the film, to "stratagems" of increasing fancifulness and diminishing rewards as a way of avoiding direct confrontation.

I wish the romantic leads had more chemistry; unlike, say, Audrey Hepburn, Tautou doesnít suggest passionate fire lurking beneath the frisky-woodland-creature exterior. And Kassovitz seems mostly morose and bewildered. Neither is there much help in the supporting roles. Especially annoying is Julien (Jamel Debbouze), a mentally challenged grocery clerk on whose sadistic boss Amélie takes revenge in one of the filmís more barbed sequences. The less sentimentalized characters prove the most appealing: the broken-hearted concierge Madeleine (Yolande Moreau), or the obsessively possessive Joseph, whoís played by Jeunet perennial Dominique Pinon.

Despite its Miramaxed surface, though, Amélie retains enough of the grotesquerie, glee, and absurdity of Jeunetís City of Lost Children to imbue its innocence with a tinge of rue and irony. The shot of a despondent Quebec tourist hurling herself off the cathedral of Notre-Dame is more subversive than the whole of Chocolat. And Amélie justifies her existence if only by confessing that one of her favorite things is to look back at the audience in a movie theater to see the expressions on the faces in the dark. In a theater showing this movie, sheíd probably be pleased with what she saw.

Issue Date: November 8 - 15, 2001

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