My essay will argue that the image system of Amélie (2001) and the post-modern style adapted by Jean Pierre Jeunet, was one of the key aspects which lead to the film’s huge success worldwide. I intend to explore how the levels of realism and formal elements within the film, develop the narrative and mood, with reference to historical developments in French film and critical viewpoints. To clarify, when I say foreign film, I am referencing the films which are foreign to Hollywood and the other predominant production companies in western culture.
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The film Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain was highly successful not only in France, but around the world, with a Domestic Total Gross of $33,225,499. It was also nominated for five academy awards including Best Foreign Film (Box Office Mojo). The film has a very distinct “look” derived from its image system and form, which has become part of French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s auteuristic style. He has been described by Eisenreich (2004) as “the national filmmaker who develops the richest visual world, combined with a technical mastery and artistic sense”. There are many critical essays and reviews written on the stem of Amélie’s success in the mainstream film industry, many putting it down to the feel-good nature of the narrative, others suggesting it was the unique cinematography and mise en scene.
Elizabeth Ezra (2008) states that Jean Pierre Jeunet, as an auteur, has a highly postmodern style. I am inclined to agree with this point, as Amélie is such a stylised film that the viewer is rarely emerged completely in the film. The audience is always aware that they are in fact watching a carefully structured and composed piece of work. According to Braudy and Cohen (1999) postmodern cinema is a deliberate mixing of different genres and film styles, pastiche and exposing the nature of a constructed text. As filmmakers, such as Jean Pierre Jeunet, are becoming increasingly aware of their audience’s active role in viewing their films, they have begun to use the conventions of postmodern cinema to their advantage. An example of a postmodern device often used in Amélie is “breaking the fourth wall” where the character directly addresses the viewer. Amélie looks directly at the camera in many close-up shots. These shots are carefully composed and use a wide lens, creating more depth in the frame. This also distorts her already elfish face, emphasizing her large eyes with an expression that includes the audience in whatever joke or feeling she is experiencing. This technique is an easy way for Jeunet to emphasise her role in the narrative and engage the audience so that she is a sympathetic character to the viewer.
As well as the distinct postmodern style, Jeunet seems to take inspiration from older film techniques. In Rémi Fournier Lanzoni’s book French Cinema: From its Beginnings to the Present (2002) it is noted that the locations and characters in Amélie are highly reminiscent of Poetic Realism films, a movement of French cinema in the 1930s that combined “naturalism and lyrical stylization” (Lanzoni 2002). The majority of the film was shot on location in the centre of Paris; however, unattractive aspects such as graffiti and rubbish bins were digitally removed in post-production. Using this technique meant that even the real modern Paris resembled the poetic-realist sets of the 30s. In my opinion, this approach makes the film feel removed from any particular timeframe, as if it is an ecosystem unaffected by the concerns of the wider world. This also means that it is strongly juxtaposed with the gritty realism of social dramas set in Paris made at a similar time, such as Mathieu Kassovitz’s “La Haine” (1995). Steinberg (2001) argues that this makes Amélie seem highly unrealistic, saying “Jeunet’s Paris is a thoroughly sanitised version of the real thing; clean, free from honking cars, tourists, foreigners and other complications. Even the beggars are happy in such an idyllic Paris”
Adding to the slightly surreal version of Paris created by Jeunet is the bold colour palette, the most dominant colours being red and green, often complemented by yellow. These colours create a very warm and positive tone to the film, as they seem to emulate old footage and perhaps evoke a nostalgic response from the viewer. This again distances the film from modern day, despite the use of modern day technology. The colour red could also be recognised as a motif in the film, as it is present in almost every scene; Amélie’s clothes, the garden gnome’s hat, the flowers and tables in the cafe as well as many other objects.
Jeunet also uses black and white when providing flashbacks, such as Bretodeau’s memories conjured by the treasure Amélie leaves him. This may have been done simply so that it would fit with the archive footage of the Tour de France; however I believe that it also provides a contrast with the bright bold colours in the rest of the film. Stanley Cavell proposed that in cinema, often, black and white represents reality whereas bright colour portrays fantasy (Cavell 1979). In Amélie, the narrative is focused on the main character; therefore the abnormal colours used could be seen as representative of her highly imaginative and playful outlook on life. This also suggests that the reality which the viewer is witnessing may perhaps be entirely constructed from Amélie’s imagination.
Ben-Shaul (2007) explains that some films attempt to make their simulacrum so believable that it is “invisible”, so that the characters and situation are the primary focus for the viewer. Others use an obvious range of cinematic techniques to replicate a certain type of reality the filmmaker wants the audience to experience. As previously mentioned, the mise en scene of Amélie seems to be a product of Amélie’s imagination; this means that the film becomes somewhat hyper-realistic. Baudrillard’s theory of “Hyperreality” (1994) describes when a film blends both reality and fantasy together so seamlessly that it is hard to tell what is real and what is not. I think that this is an essential theory to consider when understanding Amélie, as some parts of the film which might be taken literally, may perhaps be figments of her imagination.
However, many aspects of the film show very obvious uses of CGI, such as the imaginary crocodile that Amélie plays with as a child. There are many comical moments in the film, for instance Amélie quite literally breaking down into tears after not plucking up the courage to speak to Nino. There are also more serious uses of special effects, which are very noticeable, yet more subtle, for example Amélie’s daydream of Nino sneaking up behind her in the kitchen. This sequence uses a split screen which resembles a thought bubble, showing Nino approaching Amélie’s back whilst larger section of the frame shows Amélie’s reactions from the front view.
The use of these techniques, especially the animation, contribute to the film’s novelty factor, surprising and exciting the audience. If his use of CGI tells us anything about Jeunet’s auteur style, it is that he is not concerned with absolute realism. He enjoys the artifice of film and extends it as far as he can, integrating the fanciful with the actual while avoiding “cheesiness”.
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Equally important in creating Jeunet’s uncompromised auteuristic style is the wide range of shots, angles, and editing techniques. Vanderschelden (2007) notes that many of the camera techniques used throughout the film are “playful…reinforcing the light-hearted, cartoon-like tone”. I agree strongly with this statement, as the film is rich with interesting and unusual camera angles and pans, which perfectly reflect the characters portrayed.
Montage sequences are liberally used in Amélie, and are a key element to the style of the film. The whole opening of the film appears to be montage, the very fast paced shots of Amélie’s childhood, from conception, to birth, to being five years old, to being fully grown up. According to Eisenstein’s Montage theory, the juxtaposition of opposites or similarities allows the filmmaker to shape the mind and emotions of the viewer. I feel that Jeunet chose to show Amélie growing up at such a roaring pace, juxtaposing her childhood years and adult years, to show the audience how much she has changed and how much she has stayed the same. This device not only adds a “quirky humour” to the film, but it also introduces the fast paced and frantic tone of the film, allowing the viewer to gain a lot of ‘pointless’ information in a very short amount of time.
The use of sped up footage is used throughout the film, accompanied by loud sound effects to keep the pace of the film up. The pacing up also works to create a surreal and quirky feel to the film. An example of this is when Amélie cuts up the letters in a blur of speed. I found this added a little cartoon-like element to the film, as well as allowing the viewer to understand what it happening. Other examples of this in the film are the sped-up linking shots between Amélie visiting the various Bedoteaux (not Betodeau), again accompanied by racing car noise sound effects.
Another technique Jeunet uses in Amélie is the use of a handheld camera. An example of this is in the fast paced scene where Amélie takes the blind man by the arm and tells him what she sees. The handheld camera adds to the spontaneity of the scene, as it follows Amélie’s sudden decision to help people. The scene is over very quickly, leaving the blind man stood appreciating what has just happened, and the handheld camera turns into a crane shot which swoops above, highlighting the significance of that moment. Often in films such as Mathieu Kassovitz’s “La Haine” (1995) the handheld camera is a technique which adds realism and makes the film seem much more dramatic. I feel that in Amélie, the opposite effect is achieved, as the handheld camera is not used extensively, and is only used in times of excitement and joy, such as the final scene of Nino and Amélie riding on the moped in a fairytale-like ending. Instead of adding realism, the handheld camera conforms to Jeunet’s unique style, and adds to the surrealism of the film. Jeunet successfully uses a lot of panning and tracking, adding also to the fast pace established by the other techniques. For long periods of the film there is constant fluid movement, with the camera circling characters or swooping over scenes.
The audience is often placed in an observing position, with the camera standing at a distance to the action. We are used to this convention in film but we are also used to being invited to get close into the action when it is appropriate, for instance if there is an important conversation. There are some occasions in Amélie where we expect to be closer in to the action than we are, for example in the closed cafe, when Amélie suggests to Georgette that Joseph likes her, we are positioned in a corner behind the stacked chairs, as if suggesting that we are eavesdropping on the conversation. This adds an air of secrecy and mystery in the film.
An extension of this is when we see the action through a window, or an actual physical barrier, such as the conversation between Amélie and Nino in the cafe where they talk through the glass screen. And removing the audience even further, binoculars and video cameras are used by the characters in the film in some scenes, lending an air of voyeurism to their, and consequently our, role. In addition, the film appears to be shot as a picture. Many of the scenes are framed; each looked pretty as a postcard and reflected her status of an observer.
Scenes framed as pictures.
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