The Magical and Surreal World of Amelie

I know I haven’t posted much, but I’m in the last stretch of my undergraduate career. It also happens that one of my awesome professors wants a digital research paper. So I would like to present to you, “The Magical and Surreal World of Amelie”. I hope you enjoy this technical yet multimodal post.

What is saved in the cinema when it achieves art is a spontaneous continuity with all mankind. It is not an art of the princes or the bourgeoisie. It is popular and vagrant. In the sky of the cinema people learn what they might have been and discover what belongs to them apart from their single lives. —John Berger

In the French film Amélie, or Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, Jean-Pierre Jeunet paints the fantastical story of Amélie Poulain, a young French girl. This story centers around Amélie who spent her childhood isolated from everyone except her parents. Both of her parents displayed characteristics of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which caused them to enjoy little more than cleaning out their belongings as they became cluttered from use, and then putting everything back in order. As soon as Amélie is old enough to leave her childhood home, she moves to Montmartre and becomes a waitress at Café des 2 Moulins. On the night that she sees that Princess Diana has been killed, Amélie has an epiphany. The shock from the news coverage causes Amélie to drop the sphere-shaped top of a glass bottle which rolls across the floor to hit a tile that is part of the wall in the bathroom. The tile is knocked loose and reveals a hole in the wall where a boy once hid a tin containing all of his childhood treasures. Thus Amélie’s journey to bring happiness to others begins; although, through the course of events Amélie eventually discovers that it is important to find happiness for herself as well.

The characters in the film would have a normal life, with the common and not-so-common idiosyncrasies of the people found in any community, if it were not for the interference of Amélie, who becomes somewhat obsessed with the details of their lives and her whims to influence them for what she thinks to be best. The bright colors, constant motion, and quirky, yet magical, elements of the film almost bring Amélie into the literary film genre of magical realism, but Amélie more closely fits into the dreamy Surrealism genre, with the influences Jean-Pierre Jeunet brings with him into the film, such as animation.
Jeunet once said, “I believe every shot should be like a painting”, and in his film Amélie they are. The most easily found feature of Amélie is the saturation of color in the film. In the narrated introduction to this film, the tone is rosy and bright as a blue fly flits across the screen. Dudley Andrew, in a review for Film Quarterly, suggests that Jeunet could have had the fly land on Amélie’s face,“but of course he went the other direction; in postproduction he cleansed each image until it shone with the luminescence of the film’s advertising posters” (38).The colorful theme continues throughout the film, color bursts from the screen as Jeunet dresses Amélie in bright greens and blues in a home filled with fire engine red; as much of a stark contrast as her pale skin from her dark hair. Even in the subway, where it should be dull and dirty, murals and advertisements contained in elaborate golden, fine art frames brighten and contrast the plain walls.


The colors serve to complement the even more colorful characters who add several of their own subplots to the plot conceived by Amélie; both types of color fulfill the purpose of giving the film a daydream-like quality. Jeunet comments in an interview with the website Little White Lies that the colors he uses are because of his love for animation. Jeunet applies color as he feels fits accordingly with the individual scenes and characters, such as the candy-like hot pink adult store. However, as a highly noticeable contrast to these colors, in a scene where the adult Bretodeau has the treasure box from his boyhood returned to him, his memories are in black and white. According to the time period for the film, Bretodeau was a boy during the 50s and his treasure box is returned present day, so this could be a reference to the fact that some people dream in black in white.

While each shot might not be a painting, each scene was carefully planned and sculpted by Jeunet to create a dynamic flow, or wave, of time that can only be portrayed in a dream or vision. In the beginning of Amélie, the viewers of the film zoom along with the blue fly “at 70 miles per hour until it lands on St. Vincent Street”, and then they jump from one carefully depicted event to another until they finally land with the birth of Amélie. The narration follows the pace of the scenes shot through carefully timed words before leading into a detailed description of each of Amélie’s parents and then , finally, Amélie. The narration in the introduction lasts approximately twenty-five minutes, but does not seem overwhelming as it does match the pace of the film with over 300 shots in that span. Andrew describes Jeunet’s methodology and concept:

At such a rate, each shot must make its impact instantly. This means there can be no extraneous action in the frame, no competing visual features—“one idea per shot” being his motto. Hence Jeunet often frames his figures front and center, even zooming and adding “whooshes” on the soundtrack to punctuate what counts. (41)

In this manner, Jeunet has complete control over the shot, as well as the “painting” feel, and can carefully manage the tone of the film. Andrew makes a statement describing these scenes perfectly when he writes: “Each shot, as cleanly individuated as a playing card, seems pulled from a deck to be dealt rhythmically and in precise sequence” (41). After delivering the box to the Bretodeau, Amélie encounters him soon after, though Bretodeau does not know she is the one who returned the box to him. During this encounter, Bretodeau tells her how he is going to seek out and find the daughter he has not seen for years. Floating on the ecstasy of a well-received good deed, Amélie walks with her head high and a smile on her face. This scene is shown saturated with color and in slow motion as if it were as sweet as molasses and meant to be savored.

In contrast to this scene however, the final scenes of the movie show Amélie and her new boyfriend Nino speeding by on his motorcycle as if we were looking out the back window of a car in front of them snapping pictures of them. These scenes all feel as though they have a beginning and ending. The isolation that Amélie feels is echoed in the isolation of the scenes in the introduction where she is shown peeling glue off her hands and pulling out a completed row of paper figures; things children do when they have no one to play with other than themselves. These scenes that are complete within themselves are found throughout the entire movie as the viewer is told the likes and dislikes of every character who Amelia encounters for more than a brief moment. The methodology behind the use of these scenes is explained by Andrew in the following statement:

In this way Jeunet repeatedly produces the satisfaction of closure in the prologue. One character is addicted to popping bubble wrap, another cracks his joints. Bretodeau masticates the perfectly cut morsel of roast chicken, while Amélie loves to break the crust on crème brûlée. Each of these tics registers a minute dramatic achievement distinctly heard and felt as a membrane gives way to deliberate pressure. (43)

He also describes these moments as “infantile pleasures” which do give the viewer as much of a sense of satisfaction as the characters receive from the acts. This can be compared to what people experience in their dreams, people do not get this sense of satisfaction from their dreams, as often dreams will end when just before “the membrane gives way”; nonetheless, the fact that each character has a unique characteristic that brings the smallest satisfaction to him or her can seem magical, even if only for a moment.

The community that surrounds Amélie, with the individual quirks of each member, has separate yet unified lives woven together to create a myriad of subplots which hold a feeling of similarity to reality. Isabella Vanderschelden describes this to magical realism in her French film guide to Amélie: “Magical realism is also characterized by a return to village/community culture and by the prevalence of imaginary solutions of real-world contradictions” (39). In Amélie’s community, the problems are solved by her very curious way of thinking. She helps a blind man to see leading him quickly around, describing to him everything she sees along the way. The motion of the camera is important here as it creates the illusion that he is actually seeing the scenes Amélie describes to him. Later in the film, Amélie solves the problem of her drunk over-sharing landlady’s heartbreak by creating a letter from the landlady’s adulterous dead husband in which he says he is sorry for ever leaving, and that he is trying to make a home for her. Amélie utilizes a news story of a mail bag located from a crash to enable this is letter to arrive “magically” forty years late, but is something the landlady has probably dreamed about every night since she was informed of his death.

Amélie helps her own sad, strange father who does nothing but build upon the the shrine to her dead mother’s ashes, which he tops off with a garden gnome. In order to help him, Amélie steals the gnome, and has a flight attendant take pictures of the gnome in different locations all over the world. The flight attendant then mails the pictures to Amélie’s father. Upon the return of the gnome, her father decides to live his dream and go out to see the world for himself. Amélie also solves the mystery of the man who repeatedly shows up in Nino’s collection of photo booth pictures. In this photo collection, there is a man who takes his own unsmiling picture in photo booths all over town, but then throws them away. Amélie and her friend, who is nick-named “the glass man” because his bones are as brittle as glass, speculated first that this man was afraid of aging, and then they speculated that he was a ghost who was afraid of being forgotten. In the end, the man in the photograph turned out to just be the photo booth repairman and was simply making sure that the booths were working properly. However, not all the events Amélie interferes with end well; she sets up a co-worker’s obsessed ex-boyfriend who displays stalker tendencies with another of her coworkers who happens to be a hypochondriac. The ex-boyfriend ends up being just as jealous and possessive as he was with the previous girlfriend, only now he can watch both his current and his ex-girlfriend in the same place, by keeping an audio recording of every interaction with another man, especially regular customers. All of these things are examples of the changes made by a small, strange, shy young woman who just loves the little things in life, like collecting stones for skipping.

The details of this film, such as the idiosyncrasies of the characters, are what make it truly magical and surreal. As expected the introduction sets the scene for the elements to come, and we enter Amélie’s imagination as soon as she nurses a furry alligator to health, watches records being made from pancake batter, and sees a coma patient wake up to say that, once she is done, she will be able to stay awake night and day. Her mother’s death is caused by the impact of a suicidal woman who jumped off the church in a strange and sad turn of events. Her parents are not loving toward Amélie, which is clearly demonstrated through the symbolism of her isolation. The closest she feels to her father is when he is giving her a monthly check up, because that is the only time she has any physical contact with him. This brief contact causes her heart to race, which makes her parents believe she has a heart problem, but the viewers see her heart glow and pound in happiness and understand the cause because of the narration. Similar things happen that Vanderschelden considers surreal:

This film also resorts to literal visual representations linguistic idioms. The metaphorical expressions such as ‘being love-struck,’ ‘melting into tears,’ and ‘seeing the light’ are graphically illustrated on screen. Amélie literally melts into a water puddle in the cafe after Nino’s departure, and her bright throbbing heart is graphically visualized when she first meets him at the station. Similarly, the blind man experiences a heart-warming feeling when a halo of light descends upon him after meeting Amélie. (38)


These experiences are much like what people experience in dreams during which their feelings can become tangible objects and experiences. These dream-like events also occur when Amélie’s animal paintings on the wall begin speaking to one another and interacting with her pig-shaped bed side lamp, and when the photograph she used to write a note on starts speaking to Nino about what she was like. Vandershelden describes this as a Surrealist strategy to portray the characters thoughts without the characters actually speaking them aloud (38). Vandershelden, nonetheless, puts the adaptation of Amélie’s television into a translator for her thoughts into the category of magical realism, although by her definition it could be perceived as falling in the same category as the examples given in the previous statement.

Fredric Jameson defines magical realism as “the poetic transformation of the object world—not so much a fantastic narrative, then as a metamorphosis in perception and things perceived” (39). By this definition as well as by the the dreaminess of the surreal, Amélie can fall into both genres with its fairy-tale vision of the everyday life of a community and the influence of young introverted woman on everything around her. No matter what genre it is categorized as, Amélie is a whimsical film that is enough to make those who live in their own imaginary world wish to come out of their isolation and live in the real world in much the same manner as did Amélie.

Works Cited

Andrew, Dudley. “Amélie.” Film Quarterly. 57.3 (2004): 37-46. Web. 5 May. 2013.
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Jeunet, Jean-Pierre. Interview by Matt Bochenski. “Jean-Pierre Jeunet.” Little White Lies.
24 Feb 2010.Web. 5 May 2013.
jean- pierrejeunet-10048.

Vandershelden, Isabelle. Amélie: French Film Guide. Reprint. I.B. Taurius, 2007. Web.


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