It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Amelie" is a delicious pastry of a movie, a lighthearted fantasy in which a winsome heroine overcomes a sad childhood and grows up to bring cheer to the needful and joy to herself. You see it, and later when you think about it, you smile. Audrey Tautou, a fresh-faced waif who looks like she knows a secret and can't keep it, plays the title role, as a little girl who grows up starving for affection. Her father, a doctor, gives her no hugs or kisses and touches her only during checkups--which makes her heart beat so fast he thinks she is sickly. Her mother dies as the result of a successful suicide leap off the towers of Notre Dame, a statement which reveals less of the plot than you think it does.
Amelie grows up lonely and alone, a waitress in a corner bistro, until one day the death of Princess Diana changes everything. Yes, the shock of the news causes Amelie to drop a bottle cap, which jars loose a stone in the wall of her flat, which leads her to discover a rusty old box in which a long-ago boy hoarded his treasures. And in tracking down the man who was that boy, and returning his box, Amelie finds her life's work: She will make people happy. But not in any old way. So, she will amuse herself (and us) by devising the most extraordinary stratagems for bringing about their happiness.
I first began hearing about "Amelie" last May at the Cannes Film Festival, where there was a scandale when "Amelie" was not chosen for the Official Selection. "Not serious," sniffed the Very Serious authorities who decide these matters. The movie played in the commercial theaters of the back streets, where audiences vibrated with pleasure. It went on to win the audience awards at the Edinburgh, Toronto and Chicago film festivals, and I note on the Internet Movie Database that it is currently voted the 54th best film of all time, and hasn't even opened in America yet.
I am not sure "Amelie" is better than "Fargo" (No. 63) or "The General" (No. 87), but I know what the vote reflects: Immediate satisfaction with a film that is all goodness and cheer--sassy, bright and whimsical, filmed with dazzling virtuosity, and set in Paris, the city we love when it sizzles and when it drizzles. Of course this is not a realistic modern Paris, and some critics have sniffed about that, too: It is clean, orderly, safe, colorful, has no social problems, and is peopled entirely by citizens who look like extras from "An American in Paris." This is the same Paris that produced Gigi and Inspector Clouseau. It never existed, but that's OK.