Let me tell you a story. You’ve probably heard some like it before: girl meets boy and, even though there is most definitely love at first sight, to be together they must overcome insurmountable obstacles – which, of course they do, eventually riding off as one into the sunset, blissfully in love. This is exactly how this particular story always goes, isn’t it? It’s what we expect after absorbing years of fairy-tales, Hollywood movies, and books branded with commedia del arte characters. This kind of tale is what “romance” means to us, and, frankly, it’s what we want it to mean. Too much deviation from this standard story makes the Average Reader uneasy. She wants all the problems to be worked out, for all the frogs to be Prince Charming, and for all rewards to be justly distributed. She wants things to work out – for all her wishes to be fulfilled. The challenge, then, for the creative interpreter of this pre-programmed plot – the eager writer or filmmaker intent on producing a fresh new version of this all-too-familiar scenario – is to (safely) rethink and rework and reinvent. To make it different somehow – without alienating, of course, the reader who just wants her happy ending, and without, too, dishonouring the heritage of a genre that originated in antiquity. Different, then, but still the same.
Because people have loved the love story for hundreds of years, and because they will no doubt continue to love it for many years to come, it is both tempting and daunting for today’s storytellers to create new versions of “boy meets girl.” How can there possibly be anything new to say?
Enter Jean-Pierre Jeunet, film director. In 2001 he was an impish Frenchman with the Hollywood blockbuster Alien Resurrection under his belt and a desire to “use this collection of positive and magical images that had accumulated in [his] head over the last 25 years” (Tobias, 2001) to make a new movie. Jeunet’s past films had always contained an element of the darkly fantastical (Delicatessen’s quirky cannibals, the dreamless enfants perdus of 1995’s City of Lost Children) and his self-proclaimed desire to “play with everything” (Tobias, 2001) made the prospect of a Jeunet-esque romantic comedy a curious prospect. The result did not disappoint. Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, as it was known in its native France, maintained its auteur’s stamp of edgy quirk and dark whimsy, but was also sufficiently ‘romantic’ to reach wide audiences abroad and to also garner it huge success in its home country, as this Le Point review attests:
May 2001: There is only one name on the lips of eight million French people and that is Amélie. Their hearts are light and they believe again in happiness, in Montmartre, and in poetic realism. – Lorrain, quoted in Vanderschleden, 1
Poetic realism, indeed. For as much as Jeunet’s creation does evoke the 1930s French film movement of the same name, it also takes poetic license with many of the classic notions of the romance heroine and plot, and even ultimately with our notions of ‘romance’ itself. The framework of a typical love story is there, most definitely – the classic story of the girl who meets the boy and eventually rides off on his motor-scooter into the Montmartre afternoon is still very much in evidence – and Average Viewer certainly gets her happy ending, but this particular instance of wish-fulfillment does not come without a few twists, switchbacks and self-referential nods that make that ‘tried and true’ view of the love story a little skewed. This is a romance written for an alternate world, and though we may recognize the building blocks that facilitate its assembly, the structure Jeunet creates is his own version of a house of love.
Jeunet’s heroine/muse is in some ways the standard damsel in the standard distress and does much to enforce the expected image of romance, but Amélie is also capable of defying the stereotype of the typical heroine, a trend that begins even in her childhood. From the opening sequence that reviews Amélie’s early years, we learn that she grew up in relative isolation and loneliness, devoid of almost any tactile human contact. A stethoscope mediates her relationship with her father, and her mother’s untimely death leaves her also pining both for maternal touch and love. Lacking these crucial bonds with the parental unit and lacking any other socialization as a child, Amélie retreats into her imagination, and begins a withdrawal process that will persist into her pseudo-adulthood, leaving her largely an observer of life rather than its participant. She seems to spend most of her time alone, content with simple pleasures, and she is frequently portrayed in ways that underline her isolation: through the frame of her apartment window, behind the menu glass in the café, reflected in the windows of the métro, in high-angle shots that place her as an tiny pawn in the empty, overwhelming train station or dominated by looming buildings as she skips stones on the river. This solitary and socially awkward girl hardly seems capable of becoming the plucky heroine of a typical romance tale, and the sense of isolation and ‘separateness’ that surrounds Amélie from the movie’s onset makes it difficult to imagine how the expected love story will even begin. How can she possibly meet the man of her dreams when she rarely interacts with others and does not even participate in her own environment –when she is “in the middle…yet outside” (Jeunet, 30:07)?
A certain aura of segregation from and lack of full engagement with the world is not that far removed from the traditional archetype of the romance heroine, however, and this notion is reinforced when Amélie’s sexuality is examined. Jeunet indicates that, up until her idealistic consummation with Nino at the end of the movie, Amélie’s sexual experience has been limited and disappointing (she “tried once or twice, but the results were a letdown” (Jeunet, 12:28)) and it is her establishment as a largely virginal character that connects her most strongly to the romantic heroines of literature. The women in these classic tales were expected to begin and remain in a state of chastity (at least until the end of the story), suppressing all desires except those for the designated hero – pining greatly, of course, but only for him. As Northrop Frye writes in his Secular Scripture, a virginal heroine just makes the story better:
“We are usually given to understand that a happy and well-adjusted sexual life does not concern us as readers. The heroine’s virginity, on the other hand, is associated with the stresses and complications she has to go through before marriage, and which constitute the story proper…Virginity…is her normal state during the endurance, suffering, suspense, and terror which precede her real life after the story.” – Frye, page 80.
Although Amélie’s dilemmas hardly escalate to the point of suffering and terror, the fact that she is painted as a virtually unsexualized girl-child, a “young woman [who] has no love life and is shown to be completely uninterested in sex” (Clifton Moore, page 14), paradoxically increases both her place of “separateness” within the narrative and connects her to a tradition of similar virginal heroines. Jeunet’s camera techniques and art direction underline this idea of Amélie as a kind of neutered fairytale or cartoon character, and perpetuate this idea of her as being somehow asexual – desirable, perhaps, but not in a way that implies three-dimensional, adult engagement. Audrey Tautou’s gamine-like features are enhanced by close-up and wide-angle shots, making her resemble a “whimsical elf” (Vanderschelden, page 42) rather than a sex object, and her unconventional wardrobe, sculpted hairstyle and clunky shoes seem designed to make her appear more like Olive Oyle or Alice in Wonderland (Vanderschelden, page 42) than any object of sexual desire or fantasy. In this same vein, it is not insignificant that Lady Diana is the catalyst for Amélie’s personal transformation. Also a remote and untouchable figure, the media-canonized icon of Lady Di functions as a symbol of femininity without overtly sexual connotations – and even when her image is fetishized by Lucien, it is after her death, when she is even more unattainable than she was during her life. That Amélie identifies so strongly with a deceased celebrity (even to the point of visualizing a TV eulogy for her own imaginary yet equally tragic demise) underlines this idea of both estrangement and idealization that is already an established part of Amélie’s character.
As anti-social and atypical as Amélie is, however, she is our heroine, and it is her journey towards emotional and personal fulfillment that we pursue. Next step: the love interest. In this case the hero, Nino, is an equally awkward and reticent character, who feeds his artistic muse by amalgamating odd collections of things like cement molds of footprints and recordings of laughter. Ironically, one of his part-time jobs is at a pornography store, but he is no more interested in its wares or their implications than Amélie would be, and one of the first connections made between these two unconventional lovers is that of a “brother and sister to be with all the time” (Jeneut, 23:03), perpetuating the idea that their relationship has a platonic and childlike bent (atypically again, since the classic romantic hero, in opposition to his female counterpart, is rarely depicted as anything but virile). Nonetheless, Amélie is struck with this Nino, and this interest sets about the particular machinations that, by the end of the movie, will result in them actually being together all the time, just as they both have always dreamed.
Amélie’s complex schemes and “stratagems” (Jeunet, 1:39:19) are another example of her similarity to the archetypal romantic heroine. Again Northrop Frye tells us that “secrecy, including disguise, is a necessary part of the heroine’s tactics…[she] works under cover, in disguise or in secret until it is time for her identity to be revealed” (Frye, 1976, page 74-75). Amélie most definitely fulfills this requirement for membership in the heroine club, orchestrating treasure hunts and donning elaborate disguises in pursuit of her goals, but her motives are arguably less devious than they may appear. Although she does commit petty crimes and deceptions, and has even been labelled sociopathic by at least one critic (Dallas, quoted in Clifton Moore, page 10), Amélie’s purpose in restoring Bredoteau’s box of childhood memories, exacting revenge on the nasty grocer Collignon, and crafting a fraudulent love letter for her concierge seems more vicarious than manipulative or deviant. As Clifton Moore states, she “wishes [them] happiness. She also wishes her own happiness. But she is scared to death of interacting…at too personal a level” (Clifton Moore, page 15). This fear necessitates her deception and her need for ‘happiness by proxy,’ observing the catharsis she has facilitated from a safe distance, because “she’d rather imagine herself relating to an absent person than build relationships with those around her” (Jeunet, 49:13).
It is this fear of intimacy that proves to be the greatest obstacle in the story of Amélie and Nino’s romance. Where most tales of this nature produce outside forces, either human or fantastical, to impede the progress of the happy couple, Jeunet’s protagonists are only hindered by their own introversion. The stock characters of the classic romance are still largely present, and the plot contains recognizable elements, but this inward-turned, individualistic focus creates a conflict unique to this alternative love story. Amélie is alone largely because she is afraid not to be, and despite numerous convoluted attempts to surmount the mountains of her mind’s own making, she remains concealed and fearful even at the denouement of the film, peeping out from behind her curtains as the equally-inhibited Nino leaves her apartment building after a brave but fruitless attempt to make contact with her. Dufayel, Amélie’s frail neighbour and confidant, who would in any other romance or early comedy narrative fulfil the role of senex iratus and rage against the union of the hero and heroine – an act which would no doubt push them together despite his exhortations – is here the one who, by comparing Amélie to the enigmatic “girl with the glass” in his Renoir renditions and through his videotaped reminders that she can “take life’s knocks” (Jeunet, 1:52:25), encourages her to surmount her fears and accept the happiness that is due her. So too, the only outside resistance Nino faces to any liaison with Amélie is a brief interrogation by Gina, who only wants to insure he knows the endings to a few common proverbs because “a man who knows proverbs can’t be all bad” (Jeunet, 1:48:21). Everyone approves of the two misfits being together – they just have to believe it themselves.
Confronting and presumably overcoming her inhibitions means that Amélie must venture out of her self-imposed obscurity and embark on the standard quest required of all romance protagonists, passing through the dark vales of subway stations, pornography shops and carnival funhouse rides in order to defeat her own social anxieties. Simultaneously, Nino is embarking on his own quest to descend from his artistic dream-world and connect with the strange dark-haired girl he knows only from pictures and cryptic notes. Aided by the revelatory routines of the photo-booth repairman the two lovers come together at last, taking the leap of faith that all lovers take at the end of such stories, hopeful that they have achieved their destiny – or what Frye would label (much less poetically) as “a fulfilment that will deliver [them] from the anxieties of reality but will still contain that reality” (Frye, 1957, page 193).
Reality is a relative term in Jeunet’s hands, however, and his films show definite evidence of tampering and tweaking in the interest of molding an appropriately stylized world. With a background in advertising, Jeunet is often associated with the 1980s school of French filmmaking known as “cinema du look,” where slick visual style and a combination of high and popular culture are paramount. Indeed, all his films do have a distinct and recognizable appearance, and in Amélie Jeunet seems to have constructed each frame to conform to the viewer’s ingrained notions of ‘romance.’ What’s the most romantic city in the world? Paris, of course! How about a picturesque little neighbourhood where you can frequent the local café and its quirky cast of regulars, live in a quaint little flat, and buy your daily “fig and three nuts” (Jeunet, 19:08) from the cantankerous grocer? Done – ici Montmartre. There is even the accordion music of Yann Tiersen to accompany your fantasy. Granted, this version of the story takes place in August, not the springtime, but the entire mise-en-scene of the film has been otherwise tailored to match with idealized impressions of romance. Jeunet constructs, down to the last detail, the world in which his love story unfolds, and even though his characters may not always conform to the stereotypes of the romantic hero and heroine, the milieu in which they move is always explicitly appropriate. Any unsavoury elements (graffiti, pollution, crime, even the clouds in the sky) were removed or altered in either pre- or post-production, and Jeunet’s Montmartre – much to the indignation of some critics – appears perpetually idyllic, unthreatening, and bathed in green and gold.
These pervading sepia tones serve to create a sense of timelessness, ironically constructed by Jeunet using all the possible state-of-the-art movie-making tools at his disposal. An obsessive story-boarder, Jeunet believes “every shot should be like a painting” (Jeunet, quoted in Andrew, page 38), and to this end he felt no qualms about manipulating the existing reality to make it conform to his vision:
“We cleared the streets of all cars, cleaned the graffiti off the walls, replaced posters with more colourful ones. Let’s just say I tried to exert as much control as I could upon the city’s aesthetic quality. And working with postproduction was great because we were able to make changes all the way to the last moment, to the final frame.” – Andrew, page 38
Jeunet’s obsession extended even to the point of blocking out the natural sunlight in the café to ensure the continuity of his own artificial version of daylight (Vanderschelden, page 53), and in post-production this colour and image adjustment was taken even farther with the use of digital mastering. Every frame of the film was processed digitally, to saturate colours, add special effects, and further enhance existing reality in ways that made it more ‘romantic’: “We changed the skies, we put in clouds. I wanted an explosion of colour – the yellowish, Ecktachrome-style look was part of my concept from the beginning” (Vanderschelden, page 53, 54). These golden, nostalgic-evoking tones are paired with timeless props and set pieces, creating a “hodgepodge of historical signifiers” (Ezra, page 91) that make the film difficult to situate historically, but which visually enforce and underscore the notion of romance and the romantic narrative as being changeless and everlasting.
Although Jeunet’s world is devoid of easily-placed twenty-first century effects, technology is still present and used as a tool to facilitate connections between people, and to therefore advance the romance plot. It is, after all, a TV news story about Lady Diana’s death (arguably the one pointed moment of real-world time placement within the film) that brings about the discovery of Bredoteau’s hidden box of treasures (and by extension Amélie’s own self-discovery), and a train station photo booth is the locus of the lovers’ meeting. Amélie’s fantasies are presented in the form of newsreel footage, and she and Dufayel advance their friendship (and thereby Amélie’s romance) through the exchange of videotaped montages and messages. These elements both mediate the direct interaction of parties, but also make this interaction possible in the first place. It would appear that Jeunet is also sending a message, through the obsessive manipulations of his own technological medium and via his waifish muse, that the timeless notion of romance that persists does so through the filter of objects that seem devoid of warmth. But the “gaze returned through a medium” (Scatton-Tessier, page 204) is still a gaze, Jeunet may be suggesting, and may therefore still constitute a valid experience of affection:
“The genius in Jeunet’s film is his balance of the virtual and physical worlds. Protagonists seek traces of the human body through the manipulation of media (audio and video recordings, painting, photography, etc.). The personal use and appropriation of media devices become a means of self-expression in a world of individuals who find it difficult to communicate.” – Scatton-Tessier, page 205
Jeunet’s manipulation of images to create an ideal ‘romanticized’ world that we still recognize and that resonates with us seems to hint that part of what constitutes our idea of ‘romance’ is in fact its engineered quality. What we think of when we ponder this loaded term is a collection of traditions and images, strung together over time to produce a list of ideals – ideals that persist, but that are only tangentially realist. Even in real life the elusive notion of ‘true love’ has a constructed aspect when every detail involved in its improbable occurrence is considered, and adding rabbit-shaped clouds to the sky or accordion music to the soundtrack will not make it either more or less likely to occur. Any person’s ‘fabulous destiny’ may be fabricated, in other words, and yet it is an undeniable aspect of the human condition to believe in and seek out these persistent and idealistic notions of love; to do so, however, we must look beyond the media that present them to us and see the beating heart, whether or not it was added as a special effect in postproduction. As the little boy says to a mystified Nino in the midst of his photo album retrieval quest: “The fool looks at a finger that points to the sky” (Jeunet, 1:15:06) and so we must, too, look beyond the gesture and apprehend the expanse of its object.
What Jean-Pierre Jeunet likes: quirky characters that persevere, triumph, and connect despite their own shortcomings, a plot that resembles the typical tropes of romance but takes its own particular path to a happy ending, and a world that is constructed and molded down to the most minute detail while still appearing simultaneously nostalgic and current. What Jean-Pierre Jeunet has created, like the letter his plucky heroine cuts and pastes for her landlady out of a collection of words from the past, is a tale of genuine sentimentality where, nonetheless, the nostalgia is manufactured and where the manipulation of media is what brings about connection. It is a love story, true enough, but one that takes place in an alternate world, where both the tale and the destinies it describes are fabulous.
Amélie: Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain. Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Audrey Tautou, Matthieu Kassovitz. Miramax, 2001. DVD.
Clifton Moore, Rick. “Ambivalence to Technology in Jeunet’s Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain.” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 26 (2006): 9-19. www.sagepublications.com. Accessed Nov. 10, 2009.
Ezra, Elizabeth. Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.
Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.
Scatton-Tessier, Michelle. “Le Petisme: flirting with the sordid in Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain.” Studies in French Cinema, 4:3 (2004), 197-207. www.search.ebscohost.com. Academic Search Premier. Accessed Nov. 5, 2009.
Tobias, Scott. “Interview: Jean-Pierre Jeunet.” www.avclub.com. Onion Inc., Oct. 31, 2001. Accessed Dec. 3, 2009.
Vanderschelden, Isabelle. Amélie: Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007.