The fact that Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain is generally billed as a whimsical, French romantic-comedy is why it has taken me so long to see it. Whimsy is usually another word for cheesy, French often means pretentiously arty and rom-coms are mostly crap.

Thankfully, this charming movie made in 2001 proved me wrong on all three counts. It is a little over long but Audrey Tautou in the title role is so cute and watchable that this is not a major hardship.

She plays a shy waitress who starts a personal programme of anonymous good deeds to compensate for her feelings of loneliness. As a “Madonna of the unloved”  she seems resigned to not finding love or happiness in her own life.

Of course, this changes when she becomes intrigued by a man whose bizarre hobby is collecting discarded pictures from public photo booths. This cranky pastime, together with the fact that he works in a porn shop and on a ghost train convinces her that she’s found a man who is a weird as she is. She contrives an elaborate game of cat and mouse before they finally meet face to face and their mutual attraction is confirmed.

All this is, indeed, whimsical and the Parisian setting and characters are very French (an English movie would have had more of a cynical edge to it).  But it won my heart because there’s such a genuine affection and compassion for the routines and obsessions of all the lonely people. The movie’s eccentric humour is brought to life by Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s original direction and Yann Tiersen’s vivacious score.

One of the key roles is that of a reclusive old man who lives within spying distance of Amélie. He spends his days painting copies of Renoir’s ‘Le déjeuner des canotiers’ and complains of the difficulty in capturing the image of one figure in the painting of a young girl drinking a glass of water. She is “in the middle but outside” he says; a description that also sums up Amèlie’s life until she overcomes her natural timidity and starts to engage with the real world rather than living in the realm of fantasy.

A lovely movie.

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