Open wide the world

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s magically real film gestures hypnotically.

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As any city dweller can tell you, the best place to be alone is in a metropolis. In this imaginative and buoyant French comedy, a solitary Parisian named Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) changes the lives of those around her through the simple act of breaking down the walls urbanites instinctively construct around themselves.

Now, if this makes Amélie sound hopelessly corny, it isn’t. The film is infused with a wry humor (both verbal and visual) and is so full of oddball details of individual lives that it manages to be simultaneously universal and quirky. Resoundingly quirky, actually, as befits the truly original mind of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, Alien Resurrection).

In a series of rapid-fire tableaux, shot in Jeunet’s characteristic live-action-cartoon style, a string of serendipitous actions leads to the conception of Amélie. The whimsical quality of the imagery is anchored by the gravitas of the male narrator (the terrific script by Guillaume Laurant is delightful even in subtitles), and this exquisite friction continues as scenes of Amélie’s life fly by, full of the forgotten charms of childhood.

An imaginative girl whose stifling home life is ruled by fear and paranoia, Amélie turns to the magic of her own mind and a form of self-imposed isolation. As an adult, she’s sweet, quiet and always a little sad, a waitress in a Montmartre cafe who takes refuge from her life’s disappointments in the cocoon of her nearby apartment. (Even though this film is set in bustling, contemporary Paris, her building has the same cut-off feeling as the post-apocalyptic residence in Delicatessen.)

Living among a host of eccentrics, each so wrapped up in their own concerns that they barely acknowledge each other, Amélie prides herself on being an observer of overlooked details and an appreciator of simple pleasures (like immersing her hand in a bag of dried legumes or cracking the hard candy skin of a crème brulée). Then one day, inexplicably, everything changes.

Shocked by the television news of Princess Diana’s death (the conclusion of one fairy tale marks the commencement of another), Amélie drops a glass perfume stopper, which careens across her floor and dislodges a baseboard tile. She discovers, hidden in the recess of that thick Old-World wall, a box full of boyhood treasures, and resolves to return it (and the memories it contains) to its former owner.

This simple decision forces her to venture out into the world beyond her front door, and as she gets to know the strangers around her, Amélie begins to see how their lives might be bettered. Soon, she’s anonymously altering their fates through small but significant actions (from kidnapping a garden gnome to fabricating a “lost” letter).

Interestingly, Amélie isn’t so much a film about good deeds as finding the way out of a destructive routine. Jeunet superbly uses the film’s comedic aspects to illuminate the characters (as in the rapid-fire listing of an individual’s highly idiosyncratic likes and dislikes), and his occasional flights of fancy only enhance Amélie’s magical aura. The already brisk pacing of the film goes into overdrive when romance enters the picture in the form of photo-booth-snapshot collector Nino Quicampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz), and the moment arrives when our heroine must bravely take her own leap of faith.

Certainly, the sunny, romantic, benign Paris that Jeunet creates is a myth. But what he’s achieved with Amélie is a glorious form of intelligent escapism, a blissful modern fable which proposes that happiness is available to everyone. That, in itself, is no small feat.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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