Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s French romantic comedy film Amélie (2001) is a lighthearted fiesta of daily pleasures. It narrates the life of a waitress, Amélie Poulain, who spent her childhood isolated from the outer world, and her journey to bring her little fantasy world to people around her by helping them discover love. With a play between a nostalgic shade and surreal images, Jeunet recreates a fictional Paris by exploring the genres of the heritage film and the cinéma du look. Merging the visual codes of poetic realism and antirealist CGI images, with a surrealist presentation of his expressionist aesthetics in an l’art pour l’art manner, Jeunet portrays a self-reflexive dimension of his protagonist Amélie to reject the emotional entrapment of men in their pasts.
Because of its heavy use of borrowed images of the past, many have identified Amélie as a heritage film. It is a pastiche if we consider how Jeunet’s crane shots resemble with those in René Clair’s Sous les toits de Paris (1930), and how the stone skipping scenes allude to Marcel Carné’s legacy. However, although the film reproduces the iconic images from the past, a desire to restore the old Paris is not visible. Jeunet borrows the techniques from the cinéma du look to dismantle the nostalgic fantasy as he puts CGI images from the contemporary cinema in his work. In scenes such as the men in the photos coming alive to talk to Nino Quinzampoix and the portraits chatting with each other in Amélie’s bedroom, surreal animated images contradict with the film’s nostalgic tone to challenge our perception of the past. The encounter between high culture and contemporary popular culture is surprisingly harmonious in Jeunet’s expressionist framing of the scenes. One of the most ‘expressionist’ visual arrangements in the film is Amélie’s room. With a major hue of red and its strong contrast with highly saturated blue and green objects, one can only imagine that it is a mimesis of Henri Matisse’s La Desserte rouge (1908). Together with its postcard-like shots in different landmarks, features of the iconography of poetic realism are vivid in Amélie. Therefore, the hybrid of borrowed images of the old Paris and the poetic realist aesthetics together form a ‘Paris’ that has never existed.
In the notion of a fictional recreation of Paris, Amélie’s attempts to create happiness for people through recreating their pasts parallel with the film’s cinematography. The characters in the film are all held emotionally captive by their pasts, therefore, when Amélie makes use of her landlady, Madeleine Wallace’s, letters from her runaway dead husband to create a new love letter ‘lost for forty years’, she recreates Wallace’s past through a pastiche text. Most importantly, Amélie secretly sends Dufayel videotapes to show him the present that he cannot see himself because of his illness. The collage videos and his final decision to paint Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Le Déjeuner des canotiers (1881) in an expressionist style echo with Jeunet’s expressionist fashion, and reject the idea that people are entrapped in the past.
Jeunet’s rejection of the entrapment in the past is wrapped in a coat of tricks and illusions. Amélie’s inner dimension is represented by antirealist visual representation of Paris, which distorts the objective reality and instead emphasises her subjective emotions. Therefore, the unreal and solely imaginative Paris is timeless considering Jeunet’s aesthetic experience and the theatricality of the space. Such expressionist style is a poetic representation of irrational thought patterns that dismisses any social contexts that may disrupt the pure enjoyment of Jeunet’s fantasy. While some critics may despise the absence of ideology in the film, it makes Amélie a lovely symphony of daily life that cherishes small pleasures.
By Chan Tsz Yan Audrey
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