PARIS, FRANCE—Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, which will reach America in November as just plain Amélie (an exclamation point short of a musical), is the tale of a pure-hearted café worker with a jones for secret interventions in her neighbors’ lives. It’s an indie flick, basically sex- and star-power-free. In a dozen weeks, it’s sold 1.53 million tickets in the Paris area alone. It’s the biggest movie of the last 12 months. In fact, it’s spiraling toward one ticket for every Parisian. Pas mal.
Pas mal like Titanic: Amélie churns through the talk shows and magazines; the mousy soundtrack floats on the top of the charts; folks are making pilgrimages to the café. French Elle has an Amélie article in every issue: The Amélie makeover! Amélie-esque stunts! (Kidnap the neighbors’ child, teach him manners, return him with nobody the wiser.) How does a little movie become a national phenomenon? For starters, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (half the team behind quirky Delicatessen, ponderous City of Lost Children, and freakishly incoherent Alien Resurrection) finds his groove with a catchy blend of glossily naive storytelling and tossed-off camera stunts. As Amélie, Audrey Tautou is a sureshot star, carrying almost every scene with a swaggerless pixilation. Moreover, it’s really a very sweet film, and that’s something.
But it’s not enough, and folks know it. Box office this boffo always begs the prime question of pop: What is this thing telling people that they’re in such a hurry to hear? By way of analogy, Titanic delivered a simple message amid the special effects: rich people bad, poor people good, Americans choose love over money. Americans don’t seem to actually believe such nonsense, if one measures behavior—but we sure would like to. Titanic told the national lie bigger and simpler than anything before.
So what’s Amélie‘s national lie? Libération thinks it knows. The national daily for intellectuals and mildly leftist types noted the scrubbed order of Amélie‘s Montmartre ‘hood (which in realityland doesn’t lack for Middle Eastern and North African presence) and accused the film of cinematic ethnic cleansing. True nuff, only one immigrant grocery guy ripples the surface of adorable Gallicism. Whatever the film’s avowed message, concluded La Lib, it’s an advertisement for a sterilized, romanticized, and regressive Paris, the kind of Paris so esteemed—here comes the boom—by neo-fascist xenophobe politician Jean-Marie Le Pen.
One might respond that Amélie is a fairy tale: It’s like Magnolia sans tendentious angst, and with the force majeure played not by coincidence or providence but an irrepressible waitress. Fairy tales require that Right and Wrong stand in place of such subtleties as cultural difference, so they tend toward homogeneity; the same is true of Moulin Rouge (which, set also in Montmartre and Aussie-directed, was made for an American audience; guess which lie it tells).
Or one might respond, Oh shut up. Cecile Alduy, a native Parisian book critic and three-time Amélie watcher, thinks the movie’s a victory for the old country’s capacity to suspend cynicism. Within that, she sees a basic allegory that “dreamers can change the world; it’s ’68″—an upbeat wish fulfillment for the not-so-angry-anymore insurrectionists of decades back.
Me, I’m fascinated by the French habit of changing outfits before languorous dinners that conclude hours later in a luxe array of fromage. It seems deliriously sensuous at first: Domestic style! Cheese at midnight! After a week one sees the rigor: There will be style and midnight cheese every single night, mon ami; get with the program. If not an implicit lie, it’s the national contradiction. And it’s what Amélie Poulain rehearses quite elegantly: Our madcap sensualist’s great dream, it turns out, is to bring idealized, lovely, but absolute order to everything around her.
Miramax thinks the French dream will play in Peoria; they’re prepping Amélie to be the next Life Is Beautiful. Lacking that film’s ethical trainwreck of a hook (much less the shock value of Blair Witch, America’s biggest little movie ever), Amélie will be betting exactly on its French dreaminess to line ’em up in America: a curious proposition in a land where we frown on camembert after sundown, where we have no lefty national daily to fire boom shots, and where no sweet little indie has ever been this titanic.