Sweet sensation

Enchanting Amelie a woozy celebration of a capricious life

A ravishing hybrid of hyperactive cartoon and magic realism, Amelie jumps from the screen like a pop-up storybook rendering other stories dull and flat by comparison. Following in a tradition of other creative fantab-ulists like Melies, Terry Gilliam, Tex Avery, Frank Tashlin and John Woo, French pop-visionary Jean-Pierre Jeunet exploits cinema's ability to dangle an alternate reality like a luscious carrot before our eyes.

Jeunet's films Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children were far-removed from reality with their fantastical gothic storylines, but Amelie offers an enchantingly skewed reality in which individual desires and imaginations dictate the effervescently cock-eyed contours of the film fiction. That creative plenitude is Jeunet's but also his heroine, Amelie's (Audrey Tautou), whose small parcel of the world is utterly transformed by her perception of it. In many ways, Jeunet's populist drama is a celebration of individual imagination and its power to transform, whether its Amelie's sunny musings or those of a pug-ugly restaurant patron, whose perceptions are deformed by the mad imaginings of sexual jealousy.

From the film's inception, Jeunet establishes his rapturous delight in a child's view of things — a place where adults secretly fondle bubble rap, plunge their fingers into vats of raw beans or orgasmically strip wallpaper from rooms. Individual reality is perverse, peculiar and charming, a blend of weird obsessions and phobias that in no small part show Jeunet's optimistic enthrallment with the small delights of human behavior.

Raised by two aggressively unimaginative, dull parents — a mother with a nervous tic and a father whose idea of fun is a weekend spent organizing the clutter in his toolbox — poor little Amelie retreats into a lonely world of her own invention.

The tone of Amelie's opening is straight out of the magic melancholia of children's literature, of lonely Velveteen rabbits or self-reliant Pippi Longstockings. Jumping ahead several decades, the now-grown Amelie lands a waitressing job in a cozy Montmartre bistro, which, conforming to the luminous contours of her imagination, is an enchanted, sensual, surprising place, a kind of French Mayberry meets Oz. With her succulent bow of red lips, liquid brown eyes and clever bob of black hair, Amelie is a blend of storybook children from Madeline to Betty Boop and art film waifs from Louise Brooks to Anna Karina.

Her emotionally neglected childhood has, ironically, left Amelie with the gift of extreme empathy. She makes it her mission to help the world in small acts of charity, beginning with her quest to seek out the grown man whose tin box of childhood treasures she discovers behind her apartment wall. Returning the box to its owner, who is teary and transformed by this beloved token of his past, unfurls a domino effect of good deeds that inspire Amelie. The charitable impulses continue: She punishes the obnoxious neighborhood vegetable merchant for his cruelty to his slow-witted helper; she helps a blind man across the street; she prods her broken-hearted landlady into believing that her cheating husband died loving her.

But Amelie is clearly too sweet and generous a doe-eyed dolly to not need a little fixing-up of her own, so her elderly neighbor encourages her attraction to an equally eccentric, gun-shy young man.

Unlike most films, which benefit from a honed-in, leaner storyline, Amelie is best when Jeunet's enchanted imagination flits from incident to incident like a demented bumblebee, determined to pollinate all the flowers in the universe. The film's opening few minutes alone knock the visual wind out of you with their sheer wonder, ingenuity and humor. When Jeunet latches onto a realistic, old-fashioned storyline — of Amelie's quest for a love match — the whole fantastic soap bubble bursts, but the film still continues to entrance.

It's no wonder Amelie has been a popular hit in France. After a recent surge in grim, working-class tales of the country's more squalid side, the intoxicatingly elfin Amelie is a splendid release, like Charlie Chaplin's ethereal tramp, from narrative responsibility. Jeunet's visual style — his extreme close-ups and electrified editing — is as ornate as his storytelling. Every square inch of his frame is loaded with visual detail, including his characters' apartments, which are like rococo treasure boxes where every bit of space is crammed with kitschy ephemera. Garden gnomes, seashells, dancing wine glasses, a newspaper proprietress who looks like an overstuffed kewpie doll, clouds shaped like kitties — Jeunet's visual imagination has the woozy splendor of a velvet-wallpapered Victorian parlor mixed with the visual and aural frenzy of a Crazy Eddie's.

Amelie is evidence of a creative imagination that draws its material from life rather than the lofty reaches of science fiction or fantasy, and that inspiration gives the films its honeyed, humanist quality. No mere flight from reality, Jeunet is punch drunk on life's wonderful caprice and small delights, exemplified by the compilation videotapes Amelie sends her elderly neighbor that show babies swimming underwater or an elegantly dressed blueswoman wailing on an electric guitar.

Jeunet's exhilarating film is a revisitation of a child's vantage where the world is a constant merry-go-round of new sights and sensations, as in Amelie's frantic recitation of the wondrous sights crowding a Montmartre street that she recounts for a blind man. That manic tutorial in what his vision denies him leaves the blind man astounded, reawakened in a funny cartoon explosion of golden happiness. It's not far from the effect of Amelie, which also electrifies with its madcapped rendition of a world filigreed with happiness.