I’ve always considered the French approach to filmmaking to be radically different from what typically comes out of Hollywood – and, perhaps, more suited to the mindset of Unitarian Universalists. Images predominates in American films, so much so that the most common critique tends to be: “Looks great, but not much substance.” French films, on the other hand, are incredibly dense with dialogue and narrative and character; the image merely accentuates the story, and the best French movies seem to me an elegantly crafted sequence of tableaux vivants composed and arranged to highlight the story one is hearing.
That’s definitely true with Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, created by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and known more commonly by just the first name of its titular main character. Originally, Jeunet had intended for Emily Watson (of Harry Potter fame) to play Amélie, but circumstances led him to cast Audrey Tatou – and a good thing, too. Tatou is totally believable as the quirky, introverted waitress who embraces a mission of making others happy in imaginative ways.
In a sense, this is a “manic pixie dream girl” movie with greater substance. For one thing, we get to see what motivates Amélie Poulin to go out and make the world better, one stranger or couple at a time. She is thus no longer a zany plot device, but an actual person with background and depth. Nor do we see her focusing on just one stiff sap – she returns some treasured toys to their original owner, reunites an estranged couple, comforts an abandoned widow, gives a blind man a magical tour of Paris, et cetera. And we delight in every episode, as though we are accessories in her happy conspiracy.
But there’s another reason why Amélie goes beyond the standard manic-pixie-dream-girl trope, and it is the reason why I especially recommend it to UUs. As Amélie goes about making people happy, it is her neighbor Raymond Dufayel who reminds her of the need to cultivate her own bliss, which she does (and no, I’m not going to spoil it by telling you how). Often I’ve seen UUs and other progressives striving so very hard to make the world better somehow, while neglecting their own souls. If this film tells us anything, it is the importance of self-care and self-affirmation, and from that the reminder that our efforts are not merely for one cause or another, but for people like ourselves, and ultimately ourselves as well.