There is a benefit to being born (or at least raised) in Canada. You are expected to be conversant in two languages, from the day you enter the world. French and English are the two official languages of the country, and everyone in the Great White North is fluent in both of their mother tongues. For this reason, the French and English Canadians are indistinguishable from each other, and we all live together in a paradise of of understanding and mutual respect...well...sort of.
I began studying French in my first year of high school, and like most of my friends in English-speaking Ontario, read my last French book in my final year of high school. We learned enough vocabulary to be able to read the back of our cereal boxes, and enough pronunciation to cheer for Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau when "les Canadiens" were playing "le match d'hockey". Every once in a while, I wish I had studied harder and kept up the practise of speaking French...because every once in a while a film comes along which needs to be heard in the beautiful and romantic language of Paris. La fabuleux destin d'Amelie Poulin (as it was called by its creator before being shortened to Amelie for American audiences) is one of those films.
The film was released in North America with English subtitles and, for once, the subtitles managed to capture the humor and charm of the screenplay, and the tone of the dialogue is maintained to give the listener a sense of the rhythms and poetry of this contemporary fable.
Amelie Poulin is the heroine of this delightful film, which is beautifully presented on the new DVD release. Amelie is a shy girl, working as a waitress in a cafe, who has some unresolved issues with her father. One day she discovers a box of treasures, hidden in the wall of her apartment by a previous tenant. The treasures are those of a young boy. She tracks the boy down; he has grown to be a sad middle-aged man. When she anonymously returns his treasure box, she witnesses an amazing transformation; his face glows; he is young again. Amelie decides that her calling is to help people, to see that transformation again and again. The film is about her attempts to do just that. Some are successful, others less so, but the people with whom she involves herself are a strange conglomeration of misfits who all need a dose of Amelie's reality.
Amelie is a wonderful film, and the performance of Audrey Tautou is revelatory. Her smile lights up the screen, and her Chaplinesque persona is marvelously entertaining. The other actors support her brilliantly. The cigarette lady, the aging Lothario, the cafe owner, the grocer and the rest are all perfectly drawn character studies of different types. Amelie's clever means of helping her father come out of his shell will leave you wondering...but just accept it. Anything can happen in the Montmartre of Amelie Poulin!
The DVD come with a second disc which includes interviews and extra materials but, in France and Quebec, a very special boxed set was issued. I received one of these limited editions as a gift from my son, and it is absolutely "fabuleux"! As well as the two discs (no English subtitles though!) the box contains a strip of photos from the Montmartre photo-box, the Polaroids of the Gnome's round-the-world trip, a rock from the treasure box, a photo album to store your own snapshots and postcards, a CD of the soundtrack and more. It is totally in keeping with the spirit of the film, and provides hours of enjoyment besides!
The soundtrack (by Yann Tiersen) features the kinds of music you might imagine you would hear in France, played on unusual instruments like a toy piano and concertina. It is utterly charming. Have I used that word before? I can't help it. This whole project is filled with charm, from the entrancing face of its heroine to the animated lamp which turns itself off! And yet, it is not simply a caricature. These characters are fully realized, and when each one receives his/her reward, or come-uppance, you feel for them. The film lures the viewer into a very special world where, for an hour and a half, you believe everything you see.