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Friday May 7th

French Film Conveys Exquisite Loneliness

There's nothing quite so pleasing as watching the shy and slightly awkward stumble into happiness.

After watching "Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulin," I've decided to spend the rest of my days honing, rather than hiding, my timidities in hopes that I'll drift about in a lovely, whimsical haze similar to the title character of this film.

How do French filmmakers manage to turn awkwardness into such beguiling charm?

"Amelie Poulin," the most recent film by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, has been out in France since late April. Miramax plans to release the film in the United States with the title "Amelie From Montmartre" in early November.

As soon as the film is released here, every one of us should be lined up outside the theater begging the gods of all that is good in cinema for forgiveness of our summertime transgressions -- "American Pie 2," "Moulin Rouge" or even "Pearl Harbor." To atone, we should be praising them for finally delivering unto us a romantic, funny movie that doesn't make the viewer wish his head were stuffed with hay.

I will be there too, especially eager for the subtitles. But even after having seen the movie only once with my weak French (I specialize in the words "cheese," "toilet" and "Is there a supermarket nearby?"), "Amelie Poulin" is still, in my opinion, the best movie of the summer -- even the best movie I've seen in a very long time.

Jeunet, who is probably best known for his films "Delicatessen" and "The City of Lost Children," creates a sort of grown-up fairy tale in this latest work. He recruits the fresh talent of actress Audrey Tautou, who bears a striking resemblance to another big-brown-eyed Audrey that American film audiences know and love, as the title role.

Using a voice-over and pseudo-documentary style, Jeunet takes us through the conception, childhood and upbringing of Amelie. From the start, Amelie seems a peculiar victim of fate; as a child, her mother is killed by an object that falls off of Notre Dame.

Jeunet's filmwork is lavish and attentive, fitting Amelie, who grows to appreciate life's small pleasures like sifting one's hand in a bag of grain, seeing the shape of a teddy bear in the clouds or skipping small tones. These small, sharp details coupled with the film's rich color give it an almost tactile quality.

Jeunet's images of Paris are gorgeous, and every interior scene is full of just as many bright, juicy colors as the Spanish film that made it as a hit with American audiences, "All About My Mother."

So even if you aren't immediately interested in Amelie and her fabulous destiny, the movie is still a visual feast.

Tautou's Amelie, however, is delicately portrayed, and as the movie continues to follow her into adulthood, it is hard not to identify with her.

In her early 20s, Amelie seems resigned to the life of quiet observations and solo-apartment dinners of young woman lost in the crowds of Paris until she suddenly decides to work magic in the lives of some of her solitary neighbors.

With a few small manipulations -- like forging letters or returning a lost box of memorabilia -- she's able to bring love or brief wonder into these people's lives.

It is in these glimpses into the minds of others that Jeunet is at his most brilliant, using memory or imagination sequences, or simply drawing from the visual feast of images on a Paris street.

Eventually, Amelie finds herself manipulating her own destiny when she meets fellow eccentric Nino who collects discarded identification photos from the photomatons inside the metro.

Nino is played by Matthieu Kassovitz, who heretofore has been a screenwriter/director, most notably of the film "La Haine" ("Hate"). Kassovitz here proves that he can work on both sides of the camera, and his Nino is the kind of geekish hero that is hard not to be captivated by.

After meeting the first time, Nico and Amelie proceed to run into each other, gulp in fear, run from each other and return again in the most complex game of wooing I've ever beheld.

One of the movie's most wonderful moments involves a complicated series of secret messages and missed meetings that center around the magnificent Parisian church, Sacre Coeur.

And the whole thing is utterly charming -- a fairy tale fueled by whimsy and fitted perfectly with a soundtrack of carousel and accordion music.

In fact, every person I met in France this summer who'd seen this movie, French and American alike, loved it.

Partly for the charm, partly for the sheer beauty of the visual images, and partly also because Jeunet manages to capture the precariousness of human loneliness in all of its sad, funny and yes, even beautiful dimensions.

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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