Monday, April 18, 2011

Film Festival: 'Amélie'

"You could write a whole paper on just the credit sequence!"

Amélie had barely started, and we'd already paused the movie twice to break down shots, and were engaged in a mini-argument over the foreshadowing in the intro. Rob argued that many of the activities we see six-year-old Amélie engage in during the credit sequence demonstrate her patience. He suggested we were supposed to understand Amélie as being characterized by a willingness to spend a long time building up something with a relatively short payoff (arranging dominoes, placing a raspberry on each finger before eating them). I argued that we were in fact seeing Amélie's strangeness, as represented by her tendency to use objects in ways they wouldn't normally be used (painting eyes and a nose on her chin, playing a wineglass, hanging cherries from her ear).

Watching the sequence again, and without the added influence of a glass or two of Cabernet Sauvignon, I see that we were both right.

I'm sure there is a cohesive paper to be written about Amélie's opening credits; here's a shot-by-shot analysis to get things started:

Amélie's credit sequence feels like a film within a film. It's over-cranked, giving it an old-movie quality. The film speed practically says, "Once upon a time..." The sequence also features the jerky, handheld movement of a home movie, suggesting that the images we're seeing (and the story that follows) are especially personal. The handheld camerawork is also a nod to the camera belonging to the "Glass Man," and foreshadows the home video that shapes the film's climax.

As the opening credits begin, we see fingers come in from the bottom of the frame to arrange the letters - and then "tweak" them, so they're just so. This is a film about arranging things (lives), and the "homemade" quality of the arrangements is important. Furthermore, touching (with hands, but also metaphorically) is fundamental to this story.

From hands arranging cut-out letters, we cut to a close-up of a young girl's hands as she interlaces her fingers and an performs a simple trick. Adult Amélie plays tricks, but they're closer to this childhood finger-play (basic magic) than mean-spirited practical jokes.

A shot of six-year-old Amélie, upside down, with a face painted on her chin follows. This is both playful and a suggestion that Amélie's world-view is unconventional. In the next shot, little Amélie presses her face and hands to a pane of glass. Is she an outsider looking in? This is another example of the importance of touch to the story; Amélie cannot touch or be touched behind her glass barrier. (Glass is also connected to Amélie's neighbor the "Glass Man," who has to be extremely careful about touching because of his brittle bone condition.)

Amélie with cherries hanging from her ear shows us Amélie's unconventional world-view again - using a common object in an unexpected way - while also connecting her to food (nourishing, nurturing).

Amélie knocks down an S-curve of dominoes, the first of many chain-reactions she causes or participates in over the course of the film. It's noteworthy that this chain-reaction is caused by Amélie's hand, continuing with the touch theme. And to further cement the importance of hands and touching, we have the following shot: Amélie's hand, decorated with eyes and a mouth. Amélie's touch, represented by her hand, is a character in the film.

In the next shot, Amélie plays a wineglass. Under her finger, a common household object becomes a musical instrument. (I don't know what to make of the fact that the water - is it water? - in the glass is green.) Next, we see another glass, but this time from Amélie's point-of-view. Milk disappears up a straw and off camera: more food, more simple tricks.

Hands in close-up unfold a chain of red paper dolls. The cut-outs themselves are holding hands. Once again, we see the theme of touch, as well as Amélie's influence over other people's lives.

In the following shot, we see the back of six-year-old Amélie's head as she claps her hands over her ears repeatedly. She is changing her perception of the world, and the composition of the shot suggests that the audience will be privy to her process (being literally behind her and her actions).

The leaf-as-instrument in the next shot goes along with the wineglass-as-instrument (maybe that's why the water is green?), the act of pulling dried glue off an outstretched finger fits with both the glass wall (a touch barrier) and the use of common objects in an uncommon way. Amélie turns something practical into something playful.

Amélie blows a coil of paper out in front of her, in a perfect example of what Rob was referring to as a lot of planning (cutting, coiling, and holding the paper) for very little payoff. This is Amélie affecting the world around her, using her breath to temporarily change the shape of the paper, while also suggesting the nature of her good deeds. She plans carefully, but executes her projects anonymously and practically without a trace (breath), so the direct payoff for her is very small.

The spinning coin is a perfect summation of the film's relationship to fate. Spinning a coin is arguably prettier than flipping it, and also not as likely to produce a random result. In other words, we can insert ourselves (hands) into chance (coin) and create something that is both pleasurable and more certain. Amélie creates her own destiny.

Confession: Whenever I find raspberries big enough to fit on my fingertips, I recreate the next shot in my kitchen. Again we see food, this time with the pleasure of eating, both with an Amélie spin on them.

In the closing shot of the credits, little Amélie ducks out of frame. She disappears in the same direction that her hands appeared from in the opening shot. Not only is she in control of her own destiny, she controls her own image; Amélie chooses to appear in or disappear from the film. The character is the auteur, in a sense, which the localized title - simply, Amélie - where she is the only subject, suggests.

If I were a better scholar, I'd take on that project: Amélie and auteur theory. But the truth is I find it difficult to watch Amélie with any kind of scholarly eye, because I just like it so damned much! With its bright, yet still somehow also muted color palette and voice-over narration, the film is a bedtime story for adults. A fable about the ways in which we touch each other's lives.

* * *
Other fun things about Amélie:
  • The event that prompts Amélie's chain of good deeds is the news that Princess Diana, known for her philanthropy, has died.
  • Amélie's bob cut is simultaneously childish and grown-up (when film stars of the 1920s started to popularize the hair style, the bob cut was considered a sign of independence).
  • For a film so filled with color, we see very little blue. The color blue seems to be unique to Amélie, appearing mostly in her apartment in the form of a bright blue table lamp, and featured when she is thinking or hatching a plan. It is the color of the chalk marks Amélie leaves for Nino. Blue is also the dominant color in the movie theater, when Amélie speaks directly to the camera for the first time. (I love that this happens in a movie theater, and that Amélie is talking about enjoying watching people watch movies. We the audience end up looking at a movie audience in the world of the film, becoming at once each other's mirror image and each other's story. Should we expect to see ourselves in this film?)
  • The name Amélie means "industrious."


Julia said...


Second favorite movie (after Princess Bride)


Allison the Meep said...

This is one of my favorite movies ever. I love the coincidence that my Audrey shares the same name as the actress who plays Amelie.

And holy crap, lady. You really know how to break down a film! I wish my observations were as yours. My film observations mainly tend to focus on the technical aspects, since that's what I went to school for. I love the story side of things, obviously, but I am nowhere near as adept as breaking it all down as you are.