Jeunet’s “Amelie”: Refreshingly Sweet or Saccharine?

I’ll choose my words carefully, lest I receive death threats from enraged French film buffs whose lives were forever changed by “Amelie.” I may not be a French film buff myself, but I did see director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s earlier stuff, “Delicatessen” and “City of the Lost Children,” and liked them a lot, so I had high hopes for “Amelie.” The hype surrounding it was compelling: all the critics were wetting their pants over the whimsical adventures of Amelie, from Roger Ebert down to the most hard-hearted hacks in the alternative press. Even my most cynical friends had seen it four times. So I finally saw it. And I can say?it was not the best movie I saw all year. “Amelie” did not change my life, nor did it restore my faith in humanity. It was not a great movie, by Hollywood or independent film standards, not even by those of the French. So I’ll be the cold-blooded snake to say what no one else is willing to admit: “Amelie” is a bad movie.

So what is this delightful fairy tale all about? According to The Washington Post, it is a “wildly amusing” and “always touching” story of a certain mischievous pixie who steals your heart as she helps sad, lonely people find whatever is missing in their lives, whether it’s true love, excitement, confidence, or lost memories. With more of Jeunet’s cartoonish visual effects, this could have been a decent children’s story. What it becomes after an imaginative account of Amelie’s childhood, is a bland romantic comedy. Not that there’s anything wrong with romantic comedies, but when a film tries to cover up a pretty conventional story with bizarre cinematography, what you get is a Meg Ryan movie with acid flashbacks. The final product is something that’s too racy for little kids, too absurd for grown-ups, and too distracting for couples trying to make out in the theater.

Here is my problem with the movie: it’s not just cute, it knows that it’s cute. It shoves it in your face and crams it down your throat. The “funny” pranks Amelie pulls on an abusive grocer aren’t particularly funny, or even clever. But the audience is expected, even demanded, to chuckle when she replaces his shoes with a pair that’s too small, or steals her father’s garden gnome, or whenever she just smiles at the camera. It’s that unpleasant feeling you get when she looks directly at the camera and shrugs, looking like one of those grotesque plastic dogs with really big eyes you see on people’s dashboards, waiting for the audience to pat her on the head and sigh.

You’ve felt it all before, that self-congratulatory satisfaction, that smug awareness of how adorable she is, that determination to make the audience feel all warm and fuzzy inside, by any means necessary?on “Full House.” If the creators of “Full House” ever wrote an episode about a girl looking for a guy who works in a porn theater, it would be a lot like “Amelie.”

Unlike “Full House”, however, “Amelie” is not family-friendly fare. A movie like “Amelie” is just edgy enough to fool people into thinking it’s something sophisticated. It’s French, right? And it shows people having sex – it can’t be just another mawkish comedy! Its true nature starts to shine through towards the end, as Amelie’s increasingly exasperating ways of avoiding her romantic interest really test your patience.

However flashy its visual effects, the cinematography didn’t make the rest of the movie any less annoying. “Delicatessen” and “City of the Lost Children,” on the other hand, were all about the visuals. In the latter movie, Jeunet constructed an entire alternate universe filled with truly stunning eye-candy: secret laboratories, talking brains suspended in solution, Jules Verne-like mechanical contraptions, and circus freaks. “Delicatessen” was about cannibalism. I went to “Amelie” hoping to see something about circus freaks or cannibals.

Instead I got a cute story of a cute girl who makes other cute people happy, but realizes that she’s not happy, so she meets someone who makes her happy so they can go off and be happy together. There. I hope I didn’t spoil anyone’s happiness.