Editor’s note: In this feature, running every other week, Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald shares her love of certain movies and what makes them great — in the hope of inspiring some of your at-home entertainment choices.
The French romantic comedy “Amélie,” from 2001, seems made for Valentine’s Day. Just look at the rubied tones with which writer/director Jean-Pierre Jeunet saturates nearly every scene: the red walls and drapes of the heroine’s quirky-perfect Paris apartment (even the bottom sheet on her bed is red, like she’s lying on a big cardboard heart); the counters of the cafe where she works; the color of a mysterious case that figures in the plot; the simple V-neck sweater she wears in the film and on its poster, where she smiles like someone who’s had a sneak peek at a delightful secret.
Though it seems unthinkable that “Amélie” could be 20 years old this year, it’s no secret that this film is a tonic for bruised spirits. Generally in this column I’ve been avoiding movies that I reviewed when they were released, but I’m making an exception for this one, remembering that “Amélie” arrived in those post-9/11 weeks when all of us desperately needed something bright and pretty and hopeful. It’s not as if “Amélie” is all lightness — it’s definitely for adults, and its view of the world incorporates sadness — but it’s a movie that takes you somewhere unexpected, and leaves you at journey’s end feeling happier for the trip. I remember watching it on a day that felt oppressively dark; afterward, the air felt just a little softer, and my step a little bit lighter.
Describing the plot of “Amélie” does little to explain its charms; a lot happens, but really this film is about the sight of wine glasses waltzing on an outdoor table in a sudden breeze; about what it feels like to plunge your hand into a sack of grain or skip a perfect stone across the water; about how a rusty metal candy-box can, for one man, holds the world; about how, when we gaze at someone we just might love, our hearts seem to be visibly beating (quite literally so, in one scene). In a nutshell, its story is this: Amélie (Audrey Tautou), a very young, wide-eyed woman newly living on her own in Paris, decides in her own small way to try to make the world a better place. To provide any more details would be to rob “Amélie” newcomers of the pleasure of surprise.
Though Tautou had been regularly working for several years in French film and television before “Amélie,” her face was new to many American moviegoers in 2001 — and oh, what a face. You thought, watching her, of another famous Audrey; her big brown eyes had the warmth of Hepburn, and she moved with a similar grace. (“Amélie” makes note of the resemblance; both in the main character’s haircut and in a sweet nod at the end to “Roman Holiday.”) She delicately holds the movie in her hands, creating a character who’s both utterly adorable (note her repertoire of innocent gazes, pondering pouts and sunshine smiles) and yet never quite cutesy; Amélie, we learn early on, has some tragedy in her past, and it’s a shadow that makes the character more compelling.
Jeunet, who’s made many films in various genres (he’s best known, outside of “Amélie,” for “Alien: Resurrection”) but never again quite caught the magic of this one, immerses Amélie in a world both real and fanciful. In her bedroom, the pig on her lamp converses with the pictures on the wall; elsewhere, we meet a cat who “likes overhearing children’s stories.” Everything in “Amélie” is potentially surprising, and surprisingly beautiful. There’s a brief moment midmovie, in which a helpful Amélie suddenly seizes the arm of a blind man, steering him safely across the street, all the while narrating the details of the shop windows and the people passing by. It’s a tiny, richly detailed portrait of a moment in time — and the whole movie feels like that. In this filmic Valentine, there’s a story behind every door, and they’re all worth hearing.