There’s a case to be made that the two poles of fin de siècle commercial movies are dehumanized live-action cartoons and their supposed antithesis, the messy neo-neo-realism of the Dogme group and its fellow travelers. This opposition has nothing to do with avant or derriere gardes. Dogme may be a reaction against deluxe production values, but it likewise benefits from the new digital technology, and crypto-animation does not belong solely to mega-budget sci-fi or action films.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There is predicated on a phenomenally precise mise-en-scène and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s equally mannerist Amélie on an intricately calibrated pow-pow montage; neither delivers any grand explosions, but they’re straight from Toontown. If one movie is terminally depressed and the other hysterically feel-good, both feature characters pitched somewhere between grimacing meat puppet and calculated special effect—and both project worlds, filtered through extensive voice-over, so deeply nostalgic and hermetically self-enclosed as to make the Magic Kingdom resemble downtown Karachi.
The more likeable of the two, Amélie unfolds in a evocatively old-fashioned version of contemporary Paris, populated by mysterious curmudgeons, secret artists, adorable loners, and benign fetishists—the little people of Montmartre, all subjects of the movie’s eponymous gamine du jour (Audrey Tautou). Amélie is less creatively grotesque than director Jeunet’s two collaborations with cartoonist Marc Caro, Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, but it’s just as droll, and blithely retro: The accordion strains of old-timey musette resound through the cobblestone streets, and Jules et Jim is playing at the movies.
Amélie is Jeunet’s first feature to be shot outside the studio, but he’s managed to transform Paris itself into his atelier: “We [digitally] cleared the streets of all cars, cleaned the graffiti off the walls, replaced posters with more colorful ones.” The neighborhood residents are rather less colorful—a replacement that may be regarded as analogous to Woody Allen’s similarly homogenous Manhattan. The screen is saturated with Gallic whimsy and the romance of Montmartre in the person of Amélie. This wide-eyed creature, who loves cracking the crust of crème brûlée, is tall and thin, with impishly bobbed hair and clunky comic-strip character shoes. Disguised as a shy café waitress (her place of employment is a virtual museum of vintage brands), she’s actually an aspiring guardian angel.
After discovering a child’s treasure box hidden in her apartment, Amélie tracks down the now middle-aged owner and plants his boyhood stuff where he will stumble across it, secretly watching as he does so and proudly noting his grateful tears. In the same spirit, Amélie rescripts her concierge’s unhappy past by fabricating a love letter from her long-missing husband. (Not that she is always so benign. Angered by the local greengrocer’s abuse of his slow-witted assistant, Amélie turns avenging angel, sneaking into his apartment to perpetrate all manner of subtle mischief.)
Basically asexual, Amélie takes a childlike pleasure in orchestrating a neurotic co-worker’s near-cosmic orgasm in the café. Her imagination is infantile as well. Furniture comes to life in Amélie’s presence; the old Russian movies shown on TV talk directly to her. Initially disarming, this simpering dolly grows increasingly wearisome, particularly once she begins attending to her own destiny. The movie develops a plot when Amélie recovers a scrapbook of photo-booth portraits lost by a sensitive porn-shop cashier (director Mathieu Kassovitz, far more benign here than in his own movies) and engages him in a wild goose chase through the funhouse that is Paris.
Basically a faux new-wave romp, Amélie achieves a high-tech remix of the playful narrative digressions in François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and the prolix sight gags of Louis Malle’s Zazie Dans le Metro (an early ’60s art-house treat that seems ripe for revival). Jeunet loves nothing better than a pell-mell, wide-angle track into an open screaming mouth. Although there’s a surfeit of business—thunderous cuts, convulsive white-outs, split screens, interpolated newsreels, X-ray shots, annotated frames, exaggerated sound effects—much of it is funny. Indeed, the manic pace serves to mitigate the movie’s cloying sentimentality.
An ecstatically received critical and box-office success in France, and hence a source of much local pride, Amélie became the subject of some debate. The lefty spoilsports of Libération stirred the pot by deriding this new national treasure as an example of spurious populism, characterizing its digitally enhanced Paris as a softcore analogue to Le Pen’s racist National Front as well as an example of an idiot globalization that transposed the “fake magic” and inane gaiety of EuroDisney to Montmartre. Such attacks on a proven crowd-pleaser created an opportunity no politician could ignore. Amélie was ringingly endorsed by everyone from President Jacques Chirac (after a command screening at the Elysée palace) and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to the Communist deputy mayor of Paris (who praised its anti-capitalist attitude).
In the U.S., Amélie is playing for higher stakes. Brace yourself. Given that the movie’s U.S. distributor used Abraham Foxman and Jesse Jackson to flack last year’s Chocolat toward the Oscar, the French pols’ patriotic pull-quotes are but a warm-up for the inevitable Miramax hard sell.
By contrast to Amélie, the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There is ferociously understated. An exquisitely monochromatic tale of adultery, blackmail, and murder under the California sun, this fastidiously hyperreal neo-noir suggests a sadder but wiser remake of the Coens’ rambunctious debut, Blood Simple, and is even more a pastiche of tough-guy novelist James M. Cain. Frances McDormand and Billy Bob Thornton play an unhappily married couple. He’s a timid barber; she’s a brassy bookkeeper blatantly fooling around with her glad-handing boss (James Gandolfini). Thornton’s spontaneous plan to invest in a dry-cleaning scheme pitched to him by a passing grifter (Jon Polito) effectively throws the triangle disastrously off-kilter.
Even in this perversely recalcitrant world, the Coens find their puppets an endless source of amusement. Dragging ponderously on a cigarette as he pretends to cut a customer’s hair, Thornton gives an exceedingly dry performance. His surface catatonia conceals a busy inner life that’s expressed in morose voice-over, complete with metaphysical musings on the fact that, even after death, hair “just keeps growing.” As though the turgid stream of consciousness were insufficient, Thornton’s non-reactive taciturnity is accentuated by juxtaposing him with the effusive McDormand and keeping him surrounded by a gaggle of garrulous gargoyles. In a typical Cain touch, Thornton fixates on a sensitive teenage girl (Scarlett Johansson)—drawn by her rendition of Beethoven’s lugubrious “Moonlight Sonata” in the midst of a department store Christmas party.
A tediously sub-Lynchian UFO subplot notwithstanding, the Coens have not lost their cleverness. In one sight gag, Thornton gets slammed in close-up against a glass door that waits a beat and then fissures. The voice-over several times twists itself into a self-conscious pretzel, and the movie is well-stocked with meaningless signifiers. (The action is set—but not shot—in Santa Rosa, location for Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt; the self-regarding lawyer is named for a character in The Asphalt Jungle.) It’s also morally tone-deaf. The extravagantly hardboiled metaphor that something or other “vaporized like the Nips at Nagasaki” might even have given Mike Hammer pause.
In an essay on Cain, Joyce Carol Oates referred to the antihero of The Postman Always Rings Twice as “the very voice of mass man.” On trial for a murder he never committed, Thornton is similarly characterized by his ridiculously assured lawyer (Tony Shalhoub), who further bases his defense on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. In at least two novels, Cain protagonists recount their stories under sentence of death. What’s postmodern about the Coens’ antihero is the revelation that he’s writing his for a men’s magazine at five cents a word. The postman always rings twice, indeed.
There’s a fine distinction between the cool and the comatose and, punishingly slow, The Man Who Wasn’t There repeatedly drifts over the line. Were the Coens asleep at the wheel or presciently mourning the death of irony? Still, as pointless as the movie often feels, the production design is impeccable, even devotional. Lit to perfection and astonishingly beautiful, Thornton is a far more distinguished cartoon character than Amélie from Montmartre. Her foolish grin proclaims what-me-worry; his chiseled mask of tragedy could make him the poster boy for Prozac.