A second review requested by Brian Malbon, with thanks for contributing twice to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Concision is nice and all, but it's hard not to be jealous that in 2001, those of us in the English-speaking world got a movie with the blunt, sensible title Amélie, while in France, where the film was born out of the fertile mind of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, they had the enthusiastic The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain. Which is absolutely more in line with the movie as it exists out in the wild.

The movie marked Jeunet's return to France after his abortive one-movie layover in Hollywood, where he caused the frantic, kaleidoscopic Alien Resurrection to happen into the world. That experience, of course,didn't go well for anybody (least of all the audience), but it seems to have been of some use to Jeunet, for his next feature is a pretty perfect hybrid of the delirious fantasies he directed with Marc Caro in the 1990s, Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, and the glossy high-tech sensibility of a Hollywood production. Amélie is impossible to have without CGI, which meant something a lot different in 2001 than it means now.

It's also true that, compared to Delicatessen (a vicious dark comedy) and The City of Lost Children (a demented Surrealist nightmare), Amélie is vastly more audience-friendly, though I cannot say whether this is because Jeunet was infected by the American film industry, or simply because everything dark and warped in the firs two movies was the responsibility of Caro. At any rate, it is effervescent and cheery; maddeningly, toxically cheery, if you're not on its wavelength, and I've always been surprised by the number of people I've met who were absolutely not on that wavelength.Certainly, I can see where the film would become thoroughly enervating if you don't find a way into its style: everything about the design, the dialogue, the acting, and especially the cinematography (by my beloved Bruno Delbonnel; this is the movie that put him on the map) and score (by Yann Tiersen) is utterly artificial and unrelenting. In fact, I should underline that again: especially especially the score. Tiersen's music, which I find utterly beguiling, is jolly, robust, and feels like it belongs under a circus tent in some overheated Epcot Center version of France as foreigners imagine it. It hits the ground running before even the puckish, detached narration delivered plummily by André Dussolier has found its footing, and it tells us all we ever need to know about Amélie: you're about to watch a carnival in the guise of a romantic comedy about a young Parisian woman doing good deeds.

"Carnivalesque" is a lazy word to describe Jeunet's aesthetic, but it has the benefit of being exactly correct. The thing unifying all of his films made without Caro is that they're populated by elaborately fanciful and quirky characters who nevertheless feel like they could somehow manage to exist in the real world (something that's certainly not true of the fanciful cast of The City of Lost Children), they move through brightly colored spaces at a high energy, and they and the movie containing them always feels profoundly giddy and delighted at the raw possibilities of moviedom. They are garish celebrations of vitality. Now, in a science-fiction/horror movie about biological nightmares, or a romantic drama about World War I, that's not the most natural fit in the world, which is why neither Alien Resurrection nor A Very Long Engagement can necessarily be defended as unambiguously great cinema (though I've always very much liked the latter film and have come around a great deal on the former). The reason Amélie is such a great triumph - the best film of Jeunet's career, solo or as part of a team, and one of the most deeply pleasurable French films of the 2000s - is that it's the perfect marriage of aesthetic to narrative content. For the script itself is exactly the same kind of celebration of life in all its kooky back alleys that the director's style turns itself towards regardless of what story is being told.

The narrative is so straightforward that it's hard to imagine it can get all the way to two hours, let alone two hours that never feel even a bit laggy: Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) is a waitress at a café in Montmarte, and on the day of Princess Diana's death in August, 1997, she finds a small chunk of tile on her wall that can be pulled out, revealing a cubbyhole with a tin of various scraps of paper and toys that a boy in the 1950s might have considered his most important treasures. She tracks down the owner of this box, and he's so moved by this injection of his past life, he immediately sets to reconnecting with his estranged daughter. This gives Amélie such a rush that she immediately sets herself to the task of doing good for as many people as she can find, be they strangers, friends, or family. And one particular recipient of her care, Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz), catches her fancy as more than just a charity case. But on top of all her very lovely characteristics, Amélie is cripplingly shy, and it's easier for her to construct an elaborate game to flirt with Nino than to come anywhere close to letting him know who she is.

There's a lot to say about Amélie, but what trumps everything is that this is a really fucking nice motion picture. It's trite to say, but most movies that can be described as "great" - those made with high levels of craftsmanship and artistry, anxious to demand a lot from the audience, and polished at every level of their production - are usually about grave topics. There really aren't all that many movies made at Amélie's level of achievement whose subject matter and tone both support the idea that the world and the people in it are basically good, and it's possible for a driven, dedicated individual to make everybody's lives better, including her own. It's shocking how little actual conflict exists in the movie: two male characters are presented as abrasive and unpleasant, but one is generally redeemed over the course of the movie, and neither of them represent any kind of block to Amélie herself. The only tension that actually exists in the film's two hours are whether or not this endlessly upbeat character will be able to overcome her retiring personality to do something actively nice for herself. Which is a conflict, to be sure, but so internalised and abstract as to be almost totally non-cinematic.

So instead of being driven by story, Amélie is driven by its light tone, and its abiding love of its characters, whom it happily spends long, lingering moments with. It largely abates in the film's second half, but a very large amount of the running time is given over to parenthetical moments and asides dedicated to fleshing out the characters, including Amélie herself - even including her mother (Lorella Cravotta), who dies in a freak accident before the movie has even really gotten around to starting. In one respect, this is a straightforward evolution from The City of Lost Children, which sketches out its profoundly bizarre cast at the level of attitude and imagery; Amélie backs off slightly from that film's storybook grotesquerie, but uses much the same technique to quickly establish characters while digging much deeper into their hearts and minds.

Meanwhile, it's style is bulbous and bright, with lots of wide-angle lenses used to make the main character literally wide-eyed. Jeunet and editor Hervé Schneid trot out a great many fun tricks for colliding and overlapping shots to suggest the characters' thoughts spilling out into the world; Delbonnel's heavily processed cinematography (over-reachingly declared the best of the decade by American Cinematographer in 2010; I'm not even certain that I'd call it Delbonnel's own best work in that span of time, but it's undeniably lovely and came with a high degree of difficulty) bathes the whole movie in a warm coating of yellows and occasional greens that give it an unabashedly nostalgic glow - the film exactly sets itself to the late summer of 1997, but it has the faraway visual texture of something set at least before World War II - and ramp up the friendly, happy energy. It's sunshiney, that's what it is, with a great many bright exteriors shot in a cartoony register to make them seem even lighter.

The result is a movie that's extraordinarily likable and overwhelmingly generous. It's not blatantly unrealistic - suffering and exploitation exist in the world. But it's one of the great cinematic depictions of optimism that we are capable of beating those things down. And it's a remarkable, tender, and entirely honest (despite all the cartoon borders) portrayal of crippling introversion being gently, steadily massaged into something more productive and rewarding. This is one of the most uplifting movies of the 21st Century in every way, and certainly one of the most artistically complex and intelligent movies on such apparently simplistic, cheery themes. It's a happy, guileless masterpiece, and there simply aren't enough of those to go around.