movie reviews by
David Gurevich


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Amelie and Happenstance

If you’re as tired of the recent feminist-porno trend in French films (Romance, Baise-Moi, etc) as I am, two new arrivals, Amelie and Happenstance, will remind you that French romantic comedy is far from dead. In fact, Amelie was a runaway hit in France – and why not? It’s a perfect art-house date movie.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet attracted attention in America for Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, both made in partnership with Marc Caro. I’m still ambivalent about these films. On the one hand, these films exhibited a visual imagination second to none, with scene after scene of outlandish angles and colors. On the other hand, they are not concerned with dramatic conventions; as a result, the images failed to congeal, and even now I have a hard time explaining what exactly those two films were all about.

Now, I am happy to report, Mr. Jeunet has got his act together. Whether it is the absence of Mr. Caro, or the effect of a year in Hollywood where he made Alien Resurrection, but he has changed. He has not abandoned his visual fireworks, but he has changed the sign: instead of the glum, hopelessly noir world of his first two films, we are transferred to the romantic world of Montmartre. It’s as light and dainty as a vol-au-vent, and it is as clean and fragrant as a ‘50s or ‘60s musical; you almost expect the characters to grab a baguette and break out in a Francis Ley number. It is also a Paris-neighborhood movie in the grand old Carne-Prevert tradition, with a bemused voice-over commentary, a soundtrack heavy on the accordion, and a set of charming "typical Parisian" characters whiling away the time at their favorite café. (The grim French critics accused Jeunet of showing an artificial Montmartre devoid of ethnic and cultural diversity. Alas, PC rules across the Atlantic, too.)

Amelie is a fairy tale told with every post-modernist flourish Jeunet could think of. The voiceover that describes Amelie’s childhood is vintage black humor. An accordion is reinforced by modern riffs, and the characters shed their berets and make love in the café’s bathroom – an hilarious scene that is a direct quote from Delicatessen. But the center of the film is Amelie (Audrey Tautou), an angel with a page hairdo and the huge doe-like eyes that uncannily bring to mind another famous Audrey. Amelie endures a childhood with a father-doctor who would touch her only with his stethoscope and a mother who was killed outside Notre-Dame by a falling Canadian tourist. Now she is a waitress in a Montmartre café, whose personnel and patrons are one (un)happy family; after a certain turn of circumstances, she decides to dedicate herself to making everyone around her happy. She cleverly fixes up a weird patron (Dominique Pinon, still unforgettable after his turn as a sunglasses-wearing hood in Diva) with an hypochondriac cigarette seller; she forges a letter to convince her neighbor that her late husband really, really loved her; she plays a long and lovely practical joke on her father; she is sooo carried away on her do-gooder binge that she drags a blind man down the street and gives him a breathless commentary on how gorgeous the world is.

Jeunet has enough taste not to go for easy laffs. In a Hollywood comedy, Amelie would leave the blind man stranded and wondering where the hell he was and how he would get back to where he was originally heading before the crazy girl grabbed him. But at the same time Jeunet has not let go of his Delicatessen style enough; he showers the viewer with so many wonderful inventions, both verbal and visual – the heroine’s tears turn into a rainfall; her heart throbs as a red neon image -- that at times you pay more attention to the gags than to the story. This is not a problem in the quick, sharp exposition, and it works more or less in Amelie’s Good-Samaritan period. But then, as she falls in love (Matthieu Kassovitz, known in America primarily as the director of Café au lait and Hate), the film enters the well-trod boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl territory, and the prodigiousness of Jeunet’s heroine’s inventiveness begins to weigh heavily on what is a simple story.

The problem seems to be a built-in one, for, finally, after the misunderstanding No.999, one of Amelie’s benefactors tells her to drop her usual ruses and reveal her feelings to the young man. And so she does, and they ride his scooter down those spotless romantic streets… The question lingers: did we need the too-clever-by-half thirty minutes before that?

For many viewers it won’t matter, I suspect; they’ll be happy to get lost in Mlle. Tautou’s big eyes. And that, as Martha Stewart would say, is a Good Thing.

Audrey Tautou is actually a double threat on the US screens this month: she also stars in Happenstance, another Paris-based romantic comedy, this one by Laurent Firode. The French title is roughly translated as The Beating of the Butterfly's Wings, and you can imagine the American distributor’s conundrum. If you want to get philosophical, it is based on the "Butterfly theory," a random series of unlinked events; in practical terms, it’s about the difficulty of two nice young people connecting in a big city. Mr. Firode’s Paris is rougher than Jeunet’s, though his cast of characters claims as many charming oddballs. But Firode takes his film cues from Altman’s Nashville and juggles half a dozen plots as he strives to create The Portrait of the City. He succeeds, kind of – the pacing is vigorous, the actors are fine, and Mlle. Tautou is every bit as luminous as in Amelie – but the constant criss-crossing of numerous plot lines grows forced towards the end. It is hard to please the viewer who knows the ending. Still, it is quite enjoyable, and if Amelie is sold out, Happenstance will make a perfectly fine second choice.


[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]