Writing in The New Yorker some 10 years ago, critic Terrence Rafferty memorably declaimed that the absurd pop thriller La Femme Nikita was “the end of French cinema as we know it.” The line and the outrage behind it were both funny, intentionally or not, but they also said something about the character of the nostalgia to which the writer and the magazine were stubbornly beholden. Rafferty was writing in the pre–Tina Brown New Yorker, in which questions of good taste and high standards were still serious matters, in measure because they were also the last defense against the irresistible trends to which The New Yorker would soon succumb. One of the shocks that Brown inflicted on the magazine was that pop culture — the low brow of the masses vs. their middle brow — had to be taken with the same seriousness as the culture of the brownstone Brahmins. That wouldn’t have been a calamity except that the obligation wasn’t simply to seriousness, but to reverence. Higher culture’s inherent snobberies allow critics not simply to love and hate freely but to think about the gray area in between; pop culture demands love and only love, hate and only hate. In this tyranny of absolutism, one born more out of the free market than any postmodern imperative, the dissenting critic risks being labeled an elitist or, worse yet, irrelevant, which is often just a code for “too old.”
Which is a roundabout way of saying that the new French film Amélie sucks. Not because the film was a monster hit in France and looks to be one here, though perhaps of more modest art-house proportions, but because it’s a frenetic bore that insists on its audience’s adoration while making no demands upon their intelligence. The story is simplicity itself: Amélie (Audrey Tautou), a waitress, lives in a strangely depopulated, deracinated Montmartre and longs for love. A waif with bobbed hair and pooling eyes, Amélie looks like a silent-movie heroine, and for two tiring hours exercises an emotional range redolent of those primitive early entertainments — she smiles at the camera, widens her eyes, crinkles her mouth. Because the film’s director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, is more of a watchmaker than a poet of the heart and soul, however, there is no mystery to how she finds love, only a series of intricately choreographed, Rube Goldberg–like set pieces in which Amélie flips the switch. This is too bad not only because Tautou can actually act (she’s charming when she’s not twinkling as she goes in for the kill), but because she was Jeunet’s best chance to take the chill off his film, to modulate his relentless technical virtuosity with the pulse of real life.
Along with Marc Caro, Jeunet made the wind-up movies Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, then flew — and crashed — solo in the United States with the thuddingly dull Alien Resurrection. Delicatessen was promising, but warned of a sensibility too in love with its own cleverness, a warning borne out by the next two features, neither of which offered up more than fabulous production design. The new film is as meticulously constructed, but what won French audiences over wasn’t simply Tautou’s elfin allure, but Jeunet’s vision of Paris as a cloistered small town, eternally innocent of the larger world. When Amélie opened last April (after the scandal of a Cannes rejection), Parisians lined up by the thousands to take in a film about their city in which there wasn’t a tourist in sight and all the neighborhood regulars come off more au lait than espresso. The film’s nostalgia is as leaden as its whimsy, and even more toxic; it’s no wonder that it will likely end up the country’s big box-office success of the year. Just last week, France submitted it as its candidate for Best Foreign-Language Film at the next Academy Awards. Miramax, which is distributing Amélie in the United States, is even said to be considering a run for Best Picture. Can 60 million Frenchmen and -women be wrong? Can Harvey Weinstein? No, not exactly — the film will make a bundle here. But it still won’t be good.
AMÉLIE | Directed by JEAN-PIERRE JEUNET Written by JEUNET and GUILLAUME LAURANT Produced by CLAUDIE OSSARD | Released by Miramax Films | At Laemmle’s Royal