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Skin Deep

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie has all the ingredients of a romantic comedy -- except a deeply felt romance; the Coen brothers do the noir thing again.

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The frenetic whimsy of Amélie begins with its very first frame and rarely lets up. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who also co-wrote the script with Guillaume Laurant, has a style that might be described as hypercaffeinated romanticism. He doesn't make action movies, exactly, but he's in love with velocity and the ways in which he can splinter a story into glittering shards. Most directors who work like this tend to be in their twenties and rock-video-trained; the short-attention-span stylistics are a way of seeming hip -- i.e., commercial. But Jeunet, who is in his late forties, has made movies this way from the start, with 1991's Delicatessen, and, later, The City of Lost Children (both co-directed with Marc Caro), and even, to an extent, Alien: Resurrection, his misguided attempt to go Hollywood. Early on, Jeunet did indeed put in his time making TV commercials and music videos, but I don't get the sense, as I do watching films by the MTV generation, that his speed-freak aesthetic is opportunistic. It's just how he sees things, in the same way that the animation of, say, Tex Avery or Chuck Jones matches up with how they imagine the world. As it happens, Jeunet, who used to review animated movies for French magazines, often seems to be playing out his frolics as live-action cartoons. He's a dervish of inventiveness, which means that his movies are both exhilarating and exhausting.

Amélie is, in substance if not in style, far more accessible than his other films. (It's one of the biggest hits in French film history.) Its heroine, played by Audrey Tautou, is a 23-year-old waitress in a Paris café who lives alone and sees as her mission the rescue of those who are disappointed by life: At work, she plays matchmaker; she uncovers beneath her apartment's floorboards a box of knickknacks hidden away by a boy who lived there 40 years ago, and vows to find him and return the box. Amélie also fancies herself an avenger of wrongs, a Zorro or a Don Quixote. (The café is called the Two Windmills, in case we missed the point.)

The subtext to all this, of course, is that the pathologically shy Amélie needs to be helping herself. She finds an object for her affections in Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), who works in a sex shop and is just as madly eccentric as she is: He once recorded a collection of audiotapes of people's funny laughs and is compiling an album of discarded strips of film from photo portrait booths. It is the loss of this album, which Amélie recovers, that leads to a series of peekaboo near-encounters in which the moonstruck gamine almost but never quite screws up the courage to introduce herself to him. She sets up roadblocks to her own fancy, knocks them down, then sets up new ones.

Jeunet approaches, but doesn't achieve, a state of happily-ever-after rapture in this film, and I think it's because Amélie and Nino are less animated human beings than they are animated comic conceits. With her thick helmet of hair and immense almond eyes and cutesy-poo half-smile, Amélie is certainly a robust image. She doesn't have much flesh-and-blood resonance, though, and so her inevitable pairing up with Nino doesn't sing for us. It's a triumph not of romance but of crazy-quilt logistics. The passion in this movie is real, not ersatz, but ultimately it is a passion for the sheer impishness of the filmmaking process itself. Jeunet is like the Louis Malle who made Zazie Dans le Métro -- its rapid-fire pileup of freakish vignettes an obvious precursor to this film. He also resembles Terry Gilliam, another dervish genius who often gets whooshed sky-high by his own overabundance of ideas before crashing earthward. Jeunet wants us to know that times are hard for dreamers and that one shouldn't pass up a chance for true love. He means it, no doubt, but he doesn't have the simplicity of soul to quite bring off the sentiment. Still, we're charmed by the attempt. Treacle this elaborately inventive deserves some kind of blue ribbon.

The Coen brothers began their career with Blood Simple, a celebrated piece of pulp facetiousness. Their latest film, The Man Who Wasn't There, set in northern California in 1949 and starring Billy Bob Thornton as a near-catatonic barber ensnared in murder, draws on many of the same sordid sources -- especially James M. Cain -- as their debut, but it's a far more austere and arty experience. It's actually a rather hollow experience. Shooting in black and white, the Coens have composed not so much a film noir as a dissertation on film noir: They're very good at replicating the bungalows and the hat brims and the shadows of swaying leaves on grim faces. They pull out the ripest, most iconic lines: When Thornton's Ed Crane says to himself, "How could I have been so stupid?," he's intoning the lament of all noir chumps. But Crane, who looks like Bogart in High Sierra, is a monotonous blank, which is what even the chumpiest noir guys never were. The Coens have a true feeling for the sleek surfaces of the genre, but they don't connect with its sordid, sexy undercurrent; that's why Crane is made to seem so passive.

The other actors, including James Gandolfini as an embezzling adulterer, Frances McDormand as Crane's two-timing wife, and especially Tony Shalhoub as an obscenely self-satisfied defense attorney, are an improvement: At least they have a pulse. The Man Who Wasn't There denatures pulp, and although I know this was the Coens' intention, it's not a particularly gratifying one. Their movie isn't there, either.

Amélie
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet; starring Audrey Tautou.
The Man Who Wasn't There
By Ethan and Joel Coen; starring Billy Bob Thornton, James Gandolfini, and Frances McDormand.


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