“Life tastes good.” —Coke
mélie from Montmartre (Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, 2001) truly is a tasty film. It’s a smartly crafted lattice of intricate clockwork shot in a veritable candy store of colors. Yet ten minutes into Amélie I was confronted with a serious affront to my worldview. How could an authentic French person have made this movie? The little things in life? Sticking your hand into a sack of beans? Skipping stones? Aren’t the French supposed to have a healthy contempt for glamorizing the sentimental? Such “simple pleasures” are the traditional realm of the American.
Not that we partake of them in person, of course. They are, on the contrary, reserved for commercials. A young mother stops to smell the first lilac of spring: allergy medicine. Two lovers stroll hand in hand along a deserted beach at sunset: herpes. Even the timeless rebellion of a child throwing a paper airplane at his teacher is equated with a wacky new flavor of gum or corn chips that turn blue in your mouth or the dredging up of yet another defunct television program from some bygone era. In America, it’s the little things in life we shop for, like the great taste of waking up, the snuggly sensation of toasty bedclothes fresh out of the dryer, and the pause that refreshes.
Amélie has been embraced in the U.S. as a sort of post-terror tonic in a way Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s previous prophetic hit, La Cité des Enfants Perdus (1995), never could have been.
Yet The City of Lost Children, as it is called in English, is essentially the more redemptive of the two stories. In it, a Gandalf-browed, insomniac madman is the fitting personification of an economy on which the sun never sets. From his creaking, fog-strangled offshore rig he seeks the dreams of the world’s children, the idea being that he could dream perchance to sleep. This madman enlists the aid of the Cyclopes, a pack of bureaucratic drones who have plucked out their natural eyes and replaced them with a sort of digital monocle. The Cyclopes are a well-aimed magical realist take on the young professionals that haunt the business districts of New York, San Francisco, and London: pallid, shuffling recent marketing graduates who see the population not as flesh and blood but as statistics and demographic data. Bring me children, the insomniac metaphorically commands, that we might use their unconscious musings to sell products, material containers by which we can hold youth itself in our hands. We can, in effect, sell their dreams back to them as they age.
“Your client is a poor, rejected stepchild, whose best friends are dwarfs.
Can you insure her against poisoned apples?”
—Continental Insurance Company
Through a serious of unlikely twists as gnarled as the film’s shanty-style sets, the wily child thief is defeated and himself transformed into a helpless innocent in a stolen dream. The heroine of Enfants Perdus is the dark-eyed urchin, Miette (Judith Vittet). Her name means “crumb,” and she is small but crafty. Pulled by her passions and guided by her wits, it is she who enters the madman’s dream and leaves him stranded there. The diminutive “Crumb” is our collective hope of an un-demographic: a child so rude, so given to her own fancy and high on her own emergent sexuality that she cannot be marketed to. Here is a truly French concept.
Yet what if Miette had failed? What if her dreams had been stolen and used to manufacture the sickly-sweet sleep of consumerism? Amélie, twee spirit though she may be, is the answer to just such a dreary “what if.”
The simple pleasures of her youth are filmed in the familiar walleyed rapidity of a Nickelodeon commercial. The haunting sense of obsolescence, of having arrived at a loose end in history, that graces Jeunet’s previous work is lessened here. Rather than frighteningly beautiful, Amélie from Montmartre is pretty. It’s pretty because, after all, aren’t there enough unpleasant things in the world? Amélie is the film about a girl who has become a product.
“She’ll change your life.” —Miramax Films
Roger Ebert calls Amélie “a delicious pastry of a movie.” And who wouldn’t want to gobble up Audrey Tautou? Just look at the bright-eyed elf grinning demurely out of the lush flicker of the screen. So coy, so cheeky, so pretty, you just want to . . . to . . . Consume her?
We recognize Amélie as a product because the essential claim of all products is that they will change our lives. As consumers, we know that our lives are supposed to change every time we get a new Internet connection, a smaller cell phone, or subscribe to a new gym. For a moment, we cradle newness, time itself, the infinite in our hands. We know that our lives will not really change, not in any substantial way; but like the blind man to whom Amélie describes the world in a mad dash of mere seconds, we will be momentarily caught up in something greater than ourselves—elevated, able to see the shape of time.
The discovery that changes Amélie’s life is the magic of marketing. By returning a dust-cloaked tin box of classic boyhood tchotchke to a muddled, middle-aged man, she realizes that human experience can be hermetically transferred to objects. In giving him the box she has given him back his memories. “Life,” he mutters, “passes so fast.” He has been reconnected to time and suddenly, with a swallow of brandy, mourns its passage. Amélie has learned to use objects to manipulate human experience—presumably for the better.
Through video she brightens the life of her cloistered neighbor, the painter, though he remains indoors. Through text she reanimates the dreams of her concierge, a widow obsessed with the memory of her dead husband, though her husband remains dead. Through photography, she cleverly advertises the notion of travel to her father by taking tourist photos of his beloved garden gnome.
Yet the old painter warns her of a danger associated with relating to the world through a material veil: he likens her to the girl with the glass in Renoir’s Le Dejeuner des Canotiers (The luncheon of the boating party), which he is trying unsuccessfully to duplicate. Her gesture has the haphazard tone of a photograph rather than a painstakingly rendered oil painting. Like so many of us, her expression is still blank.
Amélie’s dilemma is a common one. If we deal with the world in terms of marketing, we must eventually, to create desire and find love, market ourselves. Enter: Online dating.
“I dreamed I went shopping in my Maidenform bra.” —Maidenform
Nino Quincampoix is just another thirty-year-old boy. His obsession with photography has fittingly granted him employment in a pornographic store. He is the Maxim man, but a touch more cultured, more French. The contemporary archetype of the skirt-chaser is no longer the beer goggled brute of seventies mythology. He’s a connoisseur who prefers the post-punk pixie to the big-busted bimbo. He’s read Infinite Jest and tells jokes that reference John Cage. Through technology, his lowbrow has become high. Streaming video and the DVD have made him a master of the pornographic milieu. Doing it is sexy; watching is sexier. He looks good on paper. He looks good online. Where could he find a better stomping ground than the personals?
In addition to maintaining the diet of a third-world political prisoner and keeping abreast of the latest variant on yoga, the contemporary woman now has to leave an intricate paper trail from the personals to her bedroom. Amélie and Nino’s multimedia courtship is the perfect metaphor of the complex pattern of instant messages, digital videos, and witty bios that form the backbone of any online personals romance. If the “likes/dislikes” format in which the characters in Amélie are initially presented sounds familiar, it’s because, like “sexy/sexier” and “if I were stranded on a desert island,” they are taken from the flirty microspeak of virtual matchmaking.
“Why you should get to know me: I am constantly told how ‘rare’ I am so that makes me worth more, right? Plus, I have sexy feet!”
—ideal_love (Salon.com personals)
At the beginning of Amélie, we are given a glimpse of her romantic experiences before her life was “changed forever.” Our puckish heroine lies placidly on her back while some mundane specimen of a man thrusts himself unceremoniously into her. Her lips curl into that inscrutable Mona Lisa smile, and the narrator assures us that much has been left to desire.
But how different is this from the moment Amélie finally, after so many coquetries, manages to bed Monsieur Quincampoix? The Mona Lisa smile persists and who, from the gentle curve of his back, could tell him apart from those other fellows? Could it be that he is not all that she imagined? If the personals are all about making yourself into a commodity, well . . . how many times will you switch phone companies in a lifetime? How many computers will you own? How many cars? Nino is merely one more boy in Amélie’s cyclical love life.
“Coke follows thirst everywhere.
What you want is Coke. The gift of thirst.”
This must be what it is to be consumed by one’s passions. As advertising is adopted as a way of relating to the world and enters our private lives, desire itself becomes the product. We live to create demand. Ironically, we can’t even commit a straightforward sin anymore: we no longer simply desire sex—we desire the desire for sex. As it is made into a commodity, sex itself becomes a vaguely disappointing enterprise, as anticlimactic as the worn, green paper rectangles that are the supposed goal of human industry. Like the vague-faced girl with the glass, we have chosen to be dissatisfied. This is the comedy of free will: we don’t know what we want and we want it now.
“What a wonderful goddamned movie . . . and honestly, people who have [said] so many bad things about it either have never fallen in love, are overeager film students, or just plain bitter.” —Randall Fairbrook (Robot Lounge)