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Taking Risks in "Amélie"

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film, Amélie, has some of the trappings of a romantic comedy but it's ultimately something quite a bit different. It is a film that is deeply concerned with the connections people make with one another, and, like a typical romantic comedy, it does let us revel in the joys of young love when our two dreamers, Amélie and Nino, finally do wind up together; but, the relationship they are about to embark upon is largely beside the point. What Amélie is really about is steeling up our courage to take the risks that are a necessary part of a life well-lived.

This may seem like a bit of a digression, but the strongest association I have with Amélie, is with the earliest days of social media, specifically with early Facebook. When that platform first launched, it functioned more like a network of interconnected personal websites. One could think of their own page as a thing to be curated because early on, you actually had to go to someone’s page in order to interact with them. The setup of those early Facebook pages was fairly rigid, with a particular amount of space allocated for your relevant personal information, and then boxes where you could list your interests, your favorite books, tv shows, and movies. For people you already knew, seeing what interests someone opted to share on their page was a way to get to know them better; and for the people you wanted to get to know, seeing what they were into theoretically gave you some potential ice breakers. You might only see how someone wished they were, or how they wanted to be seen, but it still told you something.

The first thing about this that reminds me of Amélie is the way that Jeunet introduces all of his characters. Using a technique he employed in his short film, Foutaises, Jeunet introduces many of the characters in Amélie by explicitly showing us very brief vignettes where we are both told and shown the things that they like and dislike. We meet Amélie’s father, Raphael Poulain, with a little montage where we learn that he doesn’t like peeing next to others or clingy wet swim trunks; and that he does like peeling large strips of wallpaper, lining up and shining his shoes, and emptying his toolbox, cleaning it out, and putting everything back inside. Amélie’s mother, Amandine, we learn, she dislikes puckered fingers in the bath or having her hands touched by strangers; but she does like figure skater’s costumes on tv, polishing the parquet, and emptying her handbag, cleaning it out, and putting everything back inside. Neither of these collections of quirks gives us that much deeper insight into either character, but the intimacy of these details still makes you feel like you know them and how they fit together.

The second thing about Amélie that makes me think of those early days of Facebook has to do with those boxes where people would list their favorite things. Amélie is one of those films that I could see on someone’s list that let me know I had found one of my people. There’s something both validating and inviting about seeing your interests mirrored in someone else. It’s interesting how the very smallest thing can sometimes spark a sense of connection. Amélie and Nino see something of their own quirky dreamer natures reflected in one another, and, before they’ve ever spoken, they feel drawn to one another in a way that doesn’t entirely make sense to either one of them at the time. After Amélie leaves her first note to Nino on the back of a square of photo booth pictures, a half-asleep Nino has the following exchange with the faces in the pictures about why she did it:

Man in photo: She’s in love

Nino: I don’t even know her

Man: You do

Nino: Since when?

Man: Since always. In your dreams

The third way in which Amélie reminds me of Facebook is less tied to the early days of social media and feels like something a bit more true of today. Amélie doesn’t know how to relate to anyone without some kind of artificial framework. The motivating event for her in the story is finding the lost box of childhood treasures in the bathroom of her apartment and deciding to try and find the person they belonged to. But, she’s incapable of just being open and vulnerable with people about what she’s trying to do. Everything is a spectacle, or a stratagem, for Amélie to hide behind.

Amélie can’t just return the childhood treasures to Dominique Bretodeau, she has to stage him finding them without explanation in a phone booth on his walk to the market; and even after he’s found it and is trying to find someone to share this astounding experience with, Amélie plays dumb. She smiles at his story, knowing that her plan to astonish him worked, but she can’t bring herself to say one word to this person aching to share his experience with anyone. She can’t just have a conversation with her father about how he should travel (as he and his late wife had wanted) but instead, sets up an elaborate prank sending his garden gnome around the world to shake him out of his rut.

She can’t just tell Nino that she’s found his photo album and wants to return it to him, or that she likes him, instead, she has to set up an elaborate ploy to lure him away from his bike so she could have him see her return it to his bike from too far away for him to catch up with her before she makes her escape. Even when Nino follows her scavenger hunt to her work, just like she planned, and is standing right in front of her, asking if she is the girl in the picture, which she obviously is, Amélie still can’t bring herself to take the risk of just saying ‘yes’ and seeing what he would do next. The resolution of Amelie’s character arc isn’t merely that she ends up with Nino, but that she finds the courage to take the risk of making herself vulnerable to someone else.

For Jeunet, it’s important that we gather that it’s the risk, not the reward, that’s the point. His aim is to deliver a satisfying ending to the story he’s telling, while also highlighting the virtue of failure and the different ways that relationships, even the best ones, can go wrong. A regular at the restaurant where Amélie works is the failed writer, Hipolito. He says at one point: “I love the word ‘fail’. Failure is human destiny. Failure teaches us that life is but a draft, a long rehearsal for a show that will never play.” Amélie’s mother and father were a good match for one another, but in the present day of the story, her father is a grieving widow. The older couple Amélie talks to while trying to track down Dominique Bretodeau, are happily enough married, though the husband is beginning to go senile. The concierge at Amélie’s apartment building was happily married until her embezzling husband ran off with his secretary. And, throughout the film, in the background of the story is the recent death of Lady Di, herself the archetype of a storybook relationship gone wrong.

The primary example of a relationship’s potential to fail is when Amélie plays matchmaker. We are first introduced to Gina and Joseph when we see where Amélie works. Gina works with Amélie. Joseph is a regular at the restaurant. The two of them had some kind of relationship in the past that Joseph can’t let go of. He sits in the restaurant every day, jealously watching Gina’s every move, making comments into a tape recorder whenever she interacts with another male customer. Amélie surreptitiously redirects Joseph’s attention from Gina to Georgette, the miserable hypochondriac who runs the cigarette counter, convincing each other that the other secretly likes them. And, for a time, Amélie’s stratagem works. Joseph and Georgette are happy and infatuated with one another, figuratively and literally climaxing with a not-so-secret liaison in the cafe’s restroom. Joseph’s jealousy is relentless though, and he starts subjecting Georgette to the same treatment as Gina, and he even returns to making the same comments about Gina. Amélie’s efforts at matchmaking are a failure, but neither Joseph nor Georgette come away from the experience empty-handed. Regardless of how things turned out, the only time in the film that we see either of them happy is those few days of infatuation. Better a day of happiness than none at all.

To circle back to that earlier digression, the fourth way that Amélie makes me think of Facebook is the way that the message of this movie stands in contrast to the riskless safety of social media - the curated broadcast of life that passively waits for others to engage with it. Part of how Amélie became so isolated is that growing up being homeschooled by just her distant father, she never learned the risks and rewards inherently tied to intimacy and vulnerability. She took refuge in her dreams, and although that shared experience is the beginning of the connection between her and Nino, the thing she needed to learn was how to stand in front of someone else, in the real world, without curation or stratagems, and let herself be open and vulnerable to whatever might happen.

In this way, the ending of the film is broader than just Amélie and Nino winding up together. We see our failed writer, Hipolito, walking along the street and coming across something he had written, that had been spray-painted onto the side of a building. We see Dominique Bretodeau, having been so shaken by the appearance of his lost childhood treasures, that he has sought out and reconnected with his estranged daughter and grandson. And we also see Amélie’s father loading his luggage into a cab, as he finally embarks on his long overdue trip. Only then do we close on Amélie and Nino joyously riding his bike together through the picturesque streets of France. We don’t know what will ultimately come of any of these adventures, but we can see on the faces of all concerned that they were all worth the risk however they may turn out.


Damian Masterson

Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.




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