The heroine of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's bold and bracing new comedy, Amélie, is Amélie Poulain, a doe-eyed crusader with the face of a porcelain doll and a sleek helmet of jet-black hair. From her high perch in Montmartre, where she works as a cafe waitress, Amélie secretly resolves to emancipate all of Paris -- or at least every traumatized Parisian who crosses her path. She also takes occasional revenge against wrongdoers, and that is equally beguiling -- thanks to a luminous performance by 24-year-old newcomer Audrey Tautou. In the wake of this wildly successful debut, Tautou has France at her feet. She just might conquer America as well.
Amélie is a meddler, but one with the imagination of an artist and the touch of an angel. When she stumbles onto a tin of boyhood treasures beneath her apartment's floorboards, she tracks down the aging owner (Maurice Bénichou) and helps redeem his shattered life. Her old neighbor Dufayel (Serge Merlin) suffers from "glass bone disease" and is apparently obsessed with the figure of a young girl in a Renoir painting; Amélie pitches in to decode the puzzle and provides the old fellow with a young painter's company. Up at the cafe, she orchestrates the first verbal exchange between an ill-tempered regular (Dominique Pinon) and a neurotic tobacconist (Isabelle Nanty); an instant later the two are rocking the rest room with their unfettered lust. Out front, Amélie gives us a satisfied smile.
If this sounds at least vaguely familiar, it's because Amélie is a direct descendant of Jane Austen's most enduring character, Emma. That tireless 19th-century matchmaker last popped up on movie screens in 1996, with Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role. The year before that, Alicia Silverstone magically transported her to a chic Beverly Hills high school in the buoyant teen farce Clueless.
Jeunet's update is a much wilder ride. Not everyone will take to the director's hectic, self-advertising style, but admirers of City of Lost Children and Delicatessen, the two films Jeunet co-directed in the 1990s with fellow Frenchman Marc Caro, will be suitably enthralled. Amélie is not as harshly nightmarish as 1991's Delicatessen, with its strange, postapocalyptic apartment building and its grotesque fascination with cannibalism. But Jeunet has by no means abandoned his radical visual experiments, the haunted sepia tones in which he chooses to bathe the City of Light or the glee he takes in throwing us straight into the overheated imaginations of his characters.
If you tripped out on the bizarreries of Delicatessen (or, for that matter, in the mind tunnels of Being John Malkovich), you'll probably love getting inside Amélie's beautifully busy head. There, all things are possible, including the perfection of mankind and the reclamation of lost souls. A tireless worker, this "madonna of the unloved" uplifts the spirits of a grief-stricken neighbor by cutting and pasting excerpts from her dead husband's old love letters into a masterpiece of conjugal devotion. Amélie then mails her reconstruction to the widow, explaining that the post office lost the letter decades ago. At the same time, she refurbishes the life of her father (played by the venerable French icon Rufus), a lonely doctor inexplicably enthralled by a plaster garden gnome.
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On the other hand, Amélie can conjure up no happiness for herself. Like Austen's famous creation, she lives through others. Her companion is her cat. Her only physical pleasures, we are told, consist of occasionally plunging a hand into a sack of dry grain or cracking the crust of a crème brûlée with a spoon. Jeunet's always been an imagist in the Salvador Dali mold, but here he reaches a new level of surrealist high jinks.
Meanwhile, the director's opening sequence is something for the ages. In the space of four frantic and hilarious minutes, he gives us a flying recap of Amélie's peculiar childhood -- the infant's fixation on bluebottle flies, the 4-year-old capping her fingertips with raspberries, the home-schooled 6-year-old's retreat into imagination, the sudden demise of her stern mother when a tourist from Quebec falls onto the poor woman's head from a great height. This miniature mock-documentary outpaces and out-weirds anything Woody Allen managed to construct in Zelig.
Amélie's odd beginnings, and the death of Princess Diana, are the apparent motivations for her career in human improvement, but in Jeunet's wonderfully skewed view of things, we're never quite sure. Suffice it to say she's an engine of restless energy, and the ebullient Tautou negotiates every crazy turn in the road with grace. Happily, her exertions finally lead her to the thing she least expects -- a romance all her own. Like Austen's model, who winds up marrying the haughty but kind John Knightley, Amélie takes the most circuitous route imaginable to the mysterious Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz), a handsome young man whose obsession seems to be to retrieve fragments of a ruined coin-booth photo and reassemble them in his scrapbook. In this way, we are led to believe, he assembles imagined lives. This is exactly what Amélie has been doing all along, of course, so she and Nino make for a perfect match.
Their hard-won connection (don't even try to imagine the complications) at last bathes Amélie in the kind of warmth and fellow-feeling Jeunet rarely indulged in his darker collaborations with Caro. In the end, the film is downright touching, but that in no way compromises the purity of Jeunet's vision, nor does it minimize the satisfying complexities of his narrative. Amélie is not a film for everyone, but if you're in the mood for a little sensory overload, some spirited intellectual gymnastics and an introduction to the most intriguing new actress Europe has produced in years, get in line with the rest of the thrill-seekers.