Café Society

Film still for Café Society

Amélie Poulain, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's valentine to Montmartre, has stormed the French box-office despite critics' attacks. Ginette Vincendeau celebrates its postmodern heart

The French icon of 2001 is a small, slim young woman with bobbed hair and girlish clothes. Her name is Amélie Poulain. Played by the delightful Audrey Tautou, she is the heroine of France's latest cinematic talking point, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's comedy Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain. Amélie is a shy café waitress who dreams up elaborate schemes to try to make other people happier – whether by tracking down the adult owner of a cache of childhood toys she unearths in her flat or cheering up her widowed father by arranging to have his favourite garden gnome photographed in a series of foreign locations. In the end she finds true romance with an equally shy young man Nino, played by Mathieu Kassovitz, director of La Haine (1995). Set in a digitally enhanced Montmartre with a retro-chic accordion soundtrack, the film is both very funny and a cornucopia of dazzling techniques. But what could have been just another feelgood movie has become, in the weeks since its launch on 25 April, an unprecedented media phenomenon.

Amélie Poulain was seen by more than 6 million people in France during its first seven weeks. On its release it received reviews ranging from the good to the ecstatic, with such hyperbolic comments as "an enchantment, a jewel, a treasure" (Studio), "two hours of bliss" (L'Express), "a masterpiece" (Le Point). Even the fact that it wasn't selected for Cannes played in its favour as it was hailed as the people's choice against the elitist tastes of the competition organisers. As the box-office figures inexorably rose, the film was hotly debated by intellectuals and journalists, and embraced by politicians as if it held the key to the French people's soul. President of the Republic Jacques Chirac demanded a private screening at the Elysée palace, prime minister Lionel Jospin, several ministers and the new mayor of Paris went to see it in the cinema. The Socialist mayor of Montmartre has promised a free screening to the inhabitants of the quartier, to which the film has attracted even more visitors than usual.

Jeunet's film is part of an exceptionally successful season of French comedies which have pushed domestic cinema's share of the market past Hollywood's for the first time since 1986. La Vérité si je mens! 2 (7.8 million spectators), Le Placard (5 million), Taxi 2 (10.3 million), La Tour Montparnasse infernale (2 million), and last year's Le Goût des autres (3.8 million) and 1998's Le Dîner de cons (9 million) have all been smash hits. Comedy has consistently been the most popular indigenous genre in France, so to some extent this success isn't surprising. But the debate about Amélie Poulain is of a different order. What's at stake is its depiction of Frenchness: is Jeunet's film virulent, reactionary populism or a postmodern celebration of grassroots identity?

The recycling of poetic realism

The first location named by André Dussolier's voiceover is Rue St-Vincent, which for French viewers irresistibly evokes the lyrics of the famous song written by Jean Renoir for his 1955 film French Cancan. Renoir's film also depicted a picturesque Montmartre – based on his father's paintings, one of which (Le Déjeuner des canotiers) plays a key role in Amélie Poulain. More cobbled streets and steep steps, corner shops and street markets follow; postcard views of Notre-Dame, the Sacré-Coeur and the Pont des Arts alternate with Parisian roofscapes, cafés and art-nouveau métro stations.

Amélie Poulain's locations and characters recycle the look and sensibility of the poetic realism that flourished in French cinema in the 30s. The Canal St-Martin (where Amélie casts stones at the water) will be forever linked with Marcel Carné's 1938 Hôtel du Nord, in which Arletty snarled "Atmosphère, atmosphère!" at Louis Jouvet (as I write this is still listed as the most popular film quote on the French film portal Without even hearing the words, the French spectator picks up the cue: atmosphere, indeed! And inhabiting these locations are the 'little people' of Paris who filled the films of Renoir, Carné and René Clair: a world-weary patronne, an irascible customer, a weepy concierge, a hypochondriac tobacconist, a cantankerous grocer, a mysterious old man, as well as one or two new types such as the sassy porn-video shop assistant and the photo-booth repairman.

One of the key locations is that emblematic Parisian space, the café. Old-fashioned names, objects, flavours whiz past: sweet and chocolate brands (such as Poulain), the Tour de France, and so on. Jeunet admits that his aim was to recreate the feel of his childhood: "I was born in 1953 and I have retained a nostalgia for the France of my childhood, or rather for its images, its fashion, its objects." Digitally removing graffiti, dog shit and other such unsightly items, he achieves with real locations a vision of Paris that resembles the poetic-realist sets of the 30s, in particular in Amélie's apartment building with its staircase, courtyard and old-fashioned interiors. As Amélie opens her window to gaze at Monsieur Dufayel obsessively repainting Le Déjeuner des canotiers she could be stepping out of Renoir's Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1935) or Hôtel du Nord.

Like Renoir with French Cancan, Jeunet made Amélie Poulain on his return from Hollywood (where he directed Alien: Resurrection). Both films depict a city saturated with Frenchness but with a distance that comes from experience abroad. In a rare negative review of Amélie Poulain the Communist daily L'Humanité complained it is "situated in a postcard Montmartre presumably aimed at seducing the American audience fond of the picturesque"; another critic called it "Eurodisney in Montmartre". But while Amélie Poulain has successfully pre-sold to foreign markets, it has also seduced the French themselves. Mirroring the film's compendium nature, critics have scoured French culture for suitable comparisons. Thus the film revives not just poetic realism but surrealism, Jacques Prévert's poetic inventory, Robert Doisneau's photographs, Poulbot's drawings of Montmartre urchins and Raymond Peynet's of lovers in Paris, the novels of Raymond Queneau (Zazie dans le métro), Georges Perec (La Vie mode d'emploi), Marcel Aymé (La Traversée de Paris) and more recently Philippe Delerm, celebrator of "little pleasures" in his cult novel La Première Gorgée de bière.

But such references are only part of the story. The success of Amélie Poulain is due to Jeunet's ability to present his nostalgic vision through high-tech mises en scène and an aesthetic drawn from cartoons and commercials. As he puts it: "The principle was to do as in Disney cartoons, a different idea in each shot, both visually and in the dialogue."

Thematically Amélie Poulain may be significantly different from Jeunet's earlier films with Marc Caro (Delicatessen, 1991; La Cité des enfants perdus, 1995). But stylistically, like them, it deploys a veritable arsenal of cinéma du look motifs and techniques: exaggerated sounds, a saturated colour scheme, abrupt changes of scale, huge close-ups of objects or faces balanced by long takes that use intricate camera movements. These are updated with digitally created special effects: Amélie dissolving into water, her beating heart or a key visible through her clothes. Inevitably accusations of a triumph of technique over content have been made, recalling discussions in the 80s about image versus substance in the cinéma du look of Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beineix, and the late critic Serge Daney's phrase "post-cinema" in reference to a cinema pervaded by the aesthetics of television and advertising. Thus Serge Kaganski, deputy editor of the modish magazine Les Inrockuptibles, criticises Jeunet because, "His cinema is not a tool to explore the real but a simple technical means to recreate the world according to him." It's an odd accusation since Jeunet freely admits to the "falsity" of his images while self-reflexivity is at the (postmodern) heart of his film.

Indeed this playful and accessible self-reflexivity is crucial to the film's widespread appeal. When Amélie discovers the concierge is unhappy about her missing-presumed-dead husband's past infi-delity, she reconstructs a letter in which he declares his love through a cut-and-paste job that's reproduced comically on the soundtrack as the concierge reads it. The device could stand as an image of the narrative itself, with its collage structure, sentimentality and fake ageing. Vision and representation are key metaphors throughout — from little Amélie's Instamatic to the small telescope she uses to spy on the painter. One of the characters in the café, a modern-day André Gide, writes about a writer writing his diary. But the most explicit mise-en-abyme is the endlessly remade Renoir painting, in which the painter tries to project Amélie's feelings on to the central waitress figure in his artwork. Here Amélie – both within the picture and outside it – echoes the position of the spectator, whose emotions are implicated but who is physically remote. Other such devices include Nino's album of discarded images picked up in photo-booths and Amélie's video compilation of fragments recorded from television. Jeunet's acknowledgement that his source for the latter was the Canal + programme Zapping shows how the film's cinephilia is mediated through television and thus accessible to a younger audience who may not know that Claire Maurier (the café patronne) played Antoine Doinel's mother in Truffaut's 1959 Les Quatre cents coups, but who will recognise the much-quoted Jules et Jim.

The politics of the postcard world

As the Amélie Poulain media phenomenon gathered strength, Liberation (3 June) asked politicians their views. The consensus was overwhelmingly positive — from right-wing ministers who admired its "refreshing tenderness" to the Communist deputy mayor of Paris who saw in it a continuation of anti-capitalist struggles, "after Seattle, Nice and Millau". A few days earlier the left-wing Republican group Génération République also commended the film for its "tender and respectful" representation of "the people". By contrast Kaganski bitterly attacked Amélie Poulain's sentimental vision of Paris as a white supremacist village, likening it to a "video clip" for the National Front. And though Liberation reviewed the film favourably, an interviewer implied that Jeunet pandered to the baser side of Frenchness: "Accordion music, the village-like quartiers, the French flag, all this can be scary. France is after all a rather mediocre small country with a heavy collaborationist past."

In view of Amélie Poulain's innocuous content, the validity of such analyses is questionable. Both sides seem to forget they are watching a comedy, a genre traditionally mimetic of social reality and yet distanced from it (through exaggeration and performance in particular) and therefore ideologically ambivalent. Comedy allows issues often ignored by 'serious' genres to be aired but recuperates them through conservative narrative resolutions. Good recent examples include Le Placard (about political correctness) and La Vérité si je mens! 2 (about ethnic difference) as well as Agnès Jaoui's Le Goût des autres which revisits the comedy of manners from an explicitly feminist viewpoint. But while these films recycle old forms to discuss topical issues, Amélie Poulain exploits the latest digital technology to transport the spectator into a bubble of nostalgia. And it's this nostalgia that's the problem.

Compared with Michael Haneke's Code inconnu (2000) or Claire Denis' Montmartre-set J'ai pas sommeil (1993), Amélie Poulain certainly presents an ethnically cleansed vision of Paris in which all the characters except Lucien, the downtrodden greengrocer's assistant, are white. And though the Arab Lucien is a sympathetic person whose suffering is avenged by Amélie, his presence is token and his typically French name further evidence of ethnic erasure. Lucien is played by beur cult comic and television presenter Jamel Debbouze and here performance complicates an ideological reading based purely on content. Debbouze is part of a growing band of French comedians of North African origin (first or second generation, Arab or Jewish) who appeal especially to the young. One of the comic moments in the film, in which Lucien clumsily drops a case of fruit because he looks at his watch, makes sense only in relation to Debbouze's real-life infirmity (he lost part of an arm in an accident).

But while the film demonstrably represents a white Paris, the accusation of nostalgia for Marshal Pétain's collaborationist France is purely speculative, especially given the total absence in the film of any direct reference to it. It's a familiar accusation in a French context, however. The trauma of collaboration under the Vichy government has reverberated throughout post-war France to the point where almost anything can be read in its light. Amélie Poulain thus becomes the latest terrain on which the 'Franco-French war' between partisans of collaboration and resistance is fought. Yet in reality many types of behaviour co-existed under the Vichy regime (resistance, indifference, cowardice, black-market exploitation, fascist collaboration), none of them confined to any class, age or profession. Politically, as the experience of the war shows, the behaviour of the French cannot be wholly claimed by either left or right without considerable bad faith. To read Amélie Poulain in these terms is thus an unwarranted import of France's history into the movie.

So why has Amélie Poulain generated such a riot of interpretations, especially in comparison with the critical indifference that has greeted other recent comedies with far more contentious views? I think for the same reason it's been so popular – namely its ambivalence and absence of clear ideological discourse. Jeunet has justified his film's optimism in the following terms: "We live at a time when there are no longer big political (or otherwise) ideals and to be able to focus on small pleasures, I think that's great." In a France where the continued unfurling of state and municipal sleaze (Paris City Hall, the Elf financial and political scandal) alongside revelations about the country's inglorious past (most recently Général Aussaresse's shocking disclosures about torture in Algeria) show politicians and political ideals to be deeply compromised, Amélie Poulain – which offers a national vision both totally imaginary and yet utterly recognisable – is the perfect escapist product.

Amélie Poulain has also been drawn into a battle against Loft Story (the French version of Big Brother) that's developed into a showdown between good (French) taste and (imported) bad taste, between national cinematic heritage and télé-poubelle (trash television). And like Astérix versus the Roman legions or David against Goliath, little Amélie has defeated the Hollywood giants, at least on her own territory. Even in such a successful year for French cinema, going to see the film en famille felt like an act both of defiance and of nostalgic celebration – not unlike the movie itself.

The new Marianne

In all the wide-ranging discussions of Amélie Poulain, little attention has been paid to the fact that Amélie is a woman. Having written the part for Emily Watson, Jeunet toyed with the idea of making his protagonist a man when the actress turned him down. In the end he decided it "had to be a woman". Why?

First because the fantasy Amélie represents is gendered – there are echoes of Alice in Wonderland and, more overtly, of Little Red Riding Hood. Always dressed in red, Amélie wears big shoes which happen to be fashionable but which also make her look like a child, a perception reinforced by her short fringe and big eyes. Her primary fantasy role is that of the good fairy – projected on to a variety of contemporary 'caring' women from Diana, Princess of Wales, to Mother Theresa – comically visualised in Jeunet's film in a fantasy film-within-the-film about herself. It's significant that she discovers the tin of little boy's toys that triggers the first of her 'good deeds' during the coverage of Diana's death, at which point she switches off her television to start her 'real' story: so Amélie takes over where Diana left off. She exists to satisfy others, and it's difficult to imagine a man cast in this role.

This is the stuff of traditional fairytales, of course, but with an ideal of cute and unthreatening femininity at its centre. Amélie doesn't drink (she chokes on the concierge's port) and she lends the film sexual innocence. She's presented both as a fantasy mother figure and as an ideal daughter – both asexual stereotypes – and when she's about to express her desire for Nino only the intervention of an "old wizard" (the painter) makes it possible. Even her computing of all the orgasms enjoyed at a certain moment in Paris is comically sweet, as are the sequences in the porn shop. As in an infantilised version of the nouvelle vague (there are echoes of Les Quatre cents coups, Jules et Jim and Céline et Julie vont en bateau), the city has become a giant playground, full of funfairs and merry-go-rounds.

Amélie's brand of femininity takes on a particular profile in the context of present-day France. A welcome antidote to the sexual antics of Loft Story, her romanticism also distinguishes her from the increasingly sexually explicit heroines of recent mainstream and auteur cinema (Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy; Virginie Despentes' Baise-moi). The release of Amélie Poulain coincided with a publishing succès de scandale by distinguished art historian Catherine Millet, who in La Vie sexuelle de Catherine M. (The Sex Life of Catherine M.) recounts in a deadpan style the graphic details of her eventful sex life. Millet, like Despentes, conjures up another version of French national identity in the tradition of the Marquis de Sade and Pauline Réage's Histoire d'O. Amélie's innocent sexual allure, by contrast, is part of the film's appeal to the whole spectrum of the audience.

Finally Amélie had to be a woman because of her emblematic function. In roles as diverse as cute girl-next-door, Little Red Riding Hood, Princess Diana, defender of the oppressed and Mother Theresa, her femininity is a blank page on which others' fantasies can be inscribed. Semi-jokingly manipulating Flaubert's phrase "Madame Bovary, c'est moi!", Jeunet declared, "Amélie Poulain, c'est moi!" Well, "Amélie Poulain c'est nous," say the French en masse, echoed by their politicians. Perhaps after Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve and Laetitia Casta, Amélie is the new model for Marianne, the symbol of the Republic.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012