[Screen It]

(2001) (Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz) (R)

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Subtitled Romantic Comedy: After helping an adult stranger revisit his childhood, a young waitress sets out to help others find happiness in their lives.
Amélie Poulain (AUDREY TAUTOU) is a young woman who works as a waitress at The Two Windmills, a small café in the Montmartre district of Paris. Having lost her mother at a young age and then being raised by her cold physician father, Raphael (RUFUS), Amélie has grown up as an innocent with a vivid imagination.

Like her painter neighbor, Raymond Dufayel (SERGE MERLIN), known as the glass man for his brittle bone condition that's kept him in his home for the past twenty years, Amélie lives in her own world, observing but rarely interacting with others outside the café where she works for Suzanne (CLAIRE MAURIER), the owner, and serves regulars such as Hipolito (ARTHUS DE PENGUERN), a failed writer.

That changes when she accidentally finds a small, hidden tin filled with childhood mementos in her apartment. Setting out to return them to their now middle-aged owner, Dominique Bretodeau (MAURICE BÉNICHOU), Amélie revels in the anonymous joy she feels upon seeing him rediscover himself. From that point on, the young woman decides to make it her mission to help others find happiness in their lives.

Among those she targets is Madeleine Wallace (YOLANDE MOREAU), a longtime widow who still longs for her husband and suddenly starts receiving long lost letters from him, thanks to Amélie. Then there's Georgette (ISABELLE NANTY) the hypochondriacal tobacconist at the café whom she slyly fixes up with Joseph (DOMINIQUE PINON), the bitter ex-lover of Gina (CLOTILDE MOLLET), another waitress at the café.

Amélie also decides to help Lucien (JAMEL DEBBOUZE), a friendly man who's always picked on and insulted by his employer, Collignon (URBAIN CANCELLIER), the local grocer, via a series of practical jokes that soon cause the mean man to question his sanity. She even tries to brighten the life of her father by having his beloved gnome figure travel the world.

Amélie also decides to cautiously approach Nino Quicampoix (MATHIEU KASSOVITZ), a young man who she sees as something of a kindred spirit and to whom she's attracted. Although he holds down various jobs, Nino's odd hobby of collecting discarded and torn up pictures from photo booths around the city fascinates Amélie and she sets out, in her own imaginative and highly complex way, to finally meet this man. As she does so and continues in her efforts to help others, she spreads joy through the lives of those she touches.

OUR TAKE: 8.5 out of 10
Anonymity (an' e-nim' i-te) noun: 1. The quality or state of being unknown or unacknowledged. 2. One that is unknown or unacknowledged. 3. The state in which most everyone lives his or her lives in the overall scope of the world. 4. Something one hopes the film, "Amélie," manages to overcome.

While some people seek fame, others prefer to remain incognito and why not? Although fame and recognition have their obvious perks, so does anonymity, particularly when one wants to get away with certain deeds - both beneficial and mischievous - without anyone knowing who's responsible.

Sometimes, the ability to help others but not take public credit for it is a personal reward all of its own, while remaining unknown occasionally benefits the doer as he or she slyly tries to attain something for his or herself, including romance.

Such is the nature and tone of the delightful, charming and extraordinarily entertaining French romantic comedy, "Amélie." The tale of one such anonymous do-gooder and occasional prankster, the film is so infectiously magical and enjoyable that I defy anyone not to find it one of the best and most satisfying films of the year.

The vividly imaginative, clever and hilarious opening sets the mood right from the get-go as writer/director Jean-Pierre Jeunet ("Alien: Resurrection," "Delicatessen") and co-writer Guillaume Laurent ("A Saturday on Earth," "The City of Lost Children") brilliantly introduce the film's characters through their idiosyncratic list of personal likes and dislikes and various events that occur in their lives.

For instance, there's the young title character's best friend, a pet fish, that decides it can't take the comical familial strife anymore and decides to end its life by leaping from its bowl onto the floor. Then there's the bit where a mean neighbor tells the same girl that her picture taking is the cause of a car accident. We then see her sitting in front of the TV - mortified to say the least - believing she's caused calamitous accidents around the world.

Such simple written descriptions don't do such moments justice, as the various scenes are far funnier and cleverer as they burst forth onto the screen at a near frenetic pace. That rapid fire introduction and numerous comical moments - delivered with just the right touch so as not to be overwhelming - are likely to sweep most viewers away into this magical fantasy tale filled with intriguing and wonderfully drawn characters.

As the title one, Audrey Tautou ("Happenstance," "Venus Beauty Institute") is nothing short of a delight to behold playing the modified ingénue who finds joy in helping others but is somewhat hesitant to do so for herself when it comes to romance. Although playing this sort of impish character could have misfired in various ways, Tautou - who's rather reminiscent of a young Audrey Hepburn - nails the part and delivers one of the year's most joyous and entertaining characters and performances.

Mathieu Kassovitz ("Eyewitness," "Jakob the Liar") is also good as the object of her affection - no doubt helped by an imaginatively drawn character (among other things, he collects and reassembles discarded pictures at photo booths around the city) - while Serge Merlin ("Cinematon," "The City of Lost Children") is terrific as the title character's frail but wise neighbor who trains his video camera on a distant shop clock - with the feed playing on his TV - rather than having his own timepiece.

Supporting performances from the likes of Isabelle Nanty ("La Bostella, "Les Visiteurs") and Dominique Pinon ("Sabotage!" "Alien: Resurrection") as a hypochondriacal tobacconist and her obsessive lover who are set up by Amélie are also fun - especially in their awkward "get to know you moments," while Urbain Cancellier ("Le Bossu," "Ridicule"), Jamel Debbouze ("Granturismo," "Zonzon") and Rufus ("Carpe Diem," "Metroland") and his touristy gnome are just as much fun to watch.

The way in which Jeunet and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel ("The Cat's Meow," "C'est jamais loin") capture all of them in a unique and visually imaginative way only adds to the film's entertainment value. While things may slow down a bit during certain stretches after the whiz-bang start, and some may see the film's fantasy sequences as ripping off "Ally McBeal," that TV show wasn't the first to use them and they're far more fun and clever here anyways.

The filmmakers have certainly injected the film with so many imaginative, humorous and occasionally touching moments and details that a second viewing is almost required to ensure that one doesn't miss anything the picture has to offer.

Playing off that universal appeal of anonymously helping people, pulling mischievous pranks on others and being shy but persistent about love, the film - a surefire Best Foreign Language Film nominee and potential Best Picture one - is nothing short of an infectiously delightful and magical film that's absolutely entertaining and fun to watch, and is guaranteed to leave viewers with a satisfied smile on their faces. "Amélie" rates as an 8.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 7, 2001 / Posted November 16, 2001

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