Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie was a breakthrough in exposing international audiences to French film – the film remains the highest-grossing French film to date in America (Box Office Mojo, 2014). There are many factors inherent to the film that contribute to its success, not the least of which is the film’s stylistic appeal – Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s unique, slightly grotesque yet endlessly quirky style made it a very entertaining and unconventional film compared to many domestic and international releases. Jeunet’s use of unconventional coloring and cinematography (making heavy use of CG) modernized the French film in ways previously unheard of. The star power of newcomer ingénue Audrey Tautou created a new kind of sex appeal, playing into the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” that is so often the center of these kinds of quirky independent films. The film is quintessentially French, as well, providing a heightened representation of its country of origin – from the Yann Tiersen score to the whimsical settings of Montmartre, the film mines its sense of French unconventionality for maximum effect. Because of these attributes and more, Amelie became an independent international hit.
When Amelie was released, it was already a substantial success in its home country – its initial weeks earned it the equivalent of $40 million USD at the box office, which is a tremendous feat for domestic French films (Bonnaud). Prior to Amelie, French and foreign language films were still a niche market with little crossover appeal – the last French film that was closest to being a box office hit was the 1970s drag comedy La Cage aux Folles (Hoad). However, in the early 2000s, with the advent of DVD and the expansion of film tastes, foreign language films were benefiting from greater exposure, and Amelie was the clearest sign of this expansion (Hoad). Because the accessibility of foreign film was increasing, so were the minds of American and international audiences, which made Amelie a timely film to be released.
One of the most interesting things about Amelie for international audiences was its status as something so unlike the Hollywood films being released in America at the time. Instead of the focus-grouped and committee-based studio films that were the norm for Western audiences, Amelie’s charm lay in its auteur-focused direction and vision. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who had established himself as a master of the whimsical in France with his films Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, had a distinctive style that defied categorization. Portraying both the grotesque and the beautiful with equally visceral style, Jeunet had been establishing a cult following in France for his critically acclaimed films. Despite an aborted attempt to cross over into American films with the 1997 sci-fi actioner Alien Resurrection, Jeunet’s style struck a chord when it was applied to a more appropriate setting: a fictionalized fairy-tale version of Paris, France (CITE). At the same time, Jeunet’s slick direction was still grounded in accessible and positive messages, so it would not overwhelm or depress audiences.
Perhaps what makes Amelie’s crossover appeal most acute is its admittedly simplistic and stereotypical view of France; Jeunet presents France in a retro, quirky manner, stuffed with all manner of recognizable landmarks and trademarks of French culture that Westerners can recognize: “the film is filled with hackneyed images of eternal "Frenchness," from the Tour de France cyclist to playground marbles to Montmartre as the quintessence of touristic Paris; from Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the painter of French bliss par excellence, to Truffaut (in a Jules and Jim reference), the legendary custodian of French charm” (Bonnaud). The film never settles on a profound social or cultural message, like much of foreign and independent film; Jeunet “cleverly opts for a tone that is modest rather than grandiose, and situates his film in the realm of the trivial” (Bonnaud). It is perhaps because of this sense of cultural lightness and broad accessibility, by playing to the simplest and most recognizable aspects of French culture, that American audiences were able to take so quickly to it. They knew they were seeing a “French film,” and so the film accommodated them with a picturesque, postcard-level world that did not challenge or overtly stimulate them. Because of this ease in which the film is able to immerse its audience in a sugar-coated, warm and touristy version of France, “Amélie didn't bother to adjust to the 21st century at all. It revelled in its Eurodisneyfication of Montmartre" (Hoad). While Amelie’s France is not the real France of today, it was the France that Americans wanted to believe in.
The central character of Amelie (played by Audrey Tautou, a role that would bring her to international fame) is another of the important aspects of the film’s crossover appeal. Her bobbed hair and bangs are unconventional, short and frame her face in a childlike way, making her seem more curious and precocious. Her cardigan and skirt are in mismatched yet sharp colors, giving her a bohemian look that is nonetheless glamorous, making her both an infantile audience identification character and an exotic sex object. Her dressed-down, idiosyncratic look and behavior harken back to French New Wave stars like Anna Karina, whose quirky sense of style in Godard’s films helped to define the French New Wave and cemented a certain image of French girls that is familiar to international audiences. In a way, she speaks to the simplistic yet exotic image of France that Americans likely engaged with in the film; she is one of the many “innocent cartoons” of the film, with her “doe-eyed, pixie-like” appearance and unconventionally quirky behavior (Vanderschelden 39). Her constant winking looks toward the camera, and the help of the film’s narrator, continually ground the audience in what is going on and who is who, which helps an international audience keep track of the characters and events of the film. Amelie herself is a shy, beautiful young woman, sexually inexperienced and constantly looking for Love – an accessible and universal character type, but which nonetheless has a sense of fun and unconventionality about her.
The aforementioned ‘retro postcard’ aesthetic that Amelie perpetuates engaged a new audience in France and French culture by painting it in an old-yet-new way. Jeunet’s sense of mise-en-scene is very exacting in the film, with a strangely dingy set of greens, yellows and browns fill France with a cartoonish ‘lived-in’ quality; this makes the eye-popping reds and blues of Amelie’s clothing and other objects and characters stand out all the further. The aesthetic of the film is incredibly cohesive, and the symmetry of the film’s cinematography shows a slick style that drew audiences in through its visual language alone. The film is almost cloying in its playfulness, as childlike as Amelie, cheekily cutting between characters and their various problems and images as quickly as a montage.
Amelie is a fantasy, pure and simple, and it celebrates its fantasy images through Jeunet’s work with color, cinematography, and overall mise-en-scene. Non-living objects, like the things that surround Amelie in her apartment, and the animal clouds that she sees in her childhood, bring to life a decidedly unreal vision of France that is used to charm its audience. Amelie’s childishness it’s the crux of her appeal; watching the film is easy and charming, as there is little conflict beyond the energetic, positive pursuit of life and love.
In conclusion, Amelie achieved international breakout success due to a combination of aesthetic and environmental factors. The early 2000s saw the advent of the Internet, globalization and the darkness and depression of the 9/11 attacks, leading to both a desire in the West to see something more positive and an increasingly accessible means of seeing it. Jeunet’s slick, stylish yet ultimately simple directing provided an unchallenging film for American audiences that still brought an essentially exotic French charm. The character of Amelie was one of the first examples of the new wave of quirky young bohemian women who would be featured prominently in films and media over the next decade, her endless curiosity and unconventional sex appeal making her an attractive draw for international audiences. Amelie also presented a stereotypical, easy version of France to assimilate that would not challenge, but instead charm – by utilizing the mise-en-scene and trappings of fantasy films, Jeunet created an urban fantasy that was desirable to watch and endlessly entrancing to audiences all over the globe.
Bonnaud, Frederic. “The Amelie Effect.” Film Comment 37.6 (November/December 2001).
“Foreign Language Movies at the Box Office.” Box Office Mojo. Mar 16, 2014.
Hoad, Phi. “Why does Amelie’s sweet smell of success linger on?” The Guardian Film Blog
(Oct 18, 2011). http://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2011/oct/18/amelie-sweet-smell-success.
Nah, Somi. "A Study on Fantasy Images represented on the Films: Focused on Mise-en-Scène
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Vanderschelden, Isabelle. Amelie. IB Taurus, 2007.