dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Opens Fri Nov 9 at the Egyptian.

The world's great cities carry automatic associations when portrayed on film. As Movie Venice is to dissolution and Movie New York is to crime, Movie Paris, of course, is to love. Although this is a reductive analysis, it's nonetheless reflexive, and lies at the heart of what makes Amélie, the heaving swoon of a Parisian fairy tale by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, so wonderful. Much like the hyper-stylized landscapes of Jeunet's previous films Delicatessen, City of Lost Children (both co-directed by Marc Caro), and Alien Resurrection, the Paris of Amélie is a glorious fake, crafted from equal parts imagination, invention, and memory. But where Jeunet's prior works turned so successfully on their nightmarish evocations, Amélie is all a good dream: vivid, supersaturated, and bathed in warmth. The film's clean streets, beautiful people, and life-affirming cuteness are, of course, pure fantasy. But in its purity, that fantasy grants Jeunet the license to indulge a uniquely French variant of magical realism, and to tell a story which, when stripped of all its stylistic whimsy and acrobatic camera moves, is about the inherent sweetness of human beings.

Granted, that may be a lot of precious nonsense. It doesn't take much work to contradict the notion that people are sweet. The incontrovertible venality of humankind is visible everywhere. Fine. Equally incontrovertible, however, is the sense of joy--joy on a molecular level; joy that makes you cry--and deep human innocence reflected in the massive, dark pools of Audrey Tautou's eyes.

Tautou is the star of Amélie, and like any true star, she has an onscreen presence that makes you believe in the power of beauty to vanquish the ugliness of existence. Her endlessly expressive face, wide open, pale, and childlike, is the core of the film. But more than that, it's a ringing endorsement for humanity, and for the untenable assertion that, as awful as we are, we are essentially good.

Despite its fairy-tale reality (design-wise, the film is impossibly sensuous; even the crockery is luscious), the world of Amélie, and Amélie herself, are far from ideal. She lives a solitary life in a dainty apartment, edified only by the tiniest sensual pleasures (cracking the glaze of a crème brêlée with a spoon, collecting skipping stones, running her hands through dried beans, etc.). Alive as she is, Amélie may as well be invisible. All around are signs, albeit playful ones, of shallowness, loneliness, and cruelty: The denizens of the cafe where she works are petulant and whiny; her father is cold; her neighbor, plagued by a bone disease, is a shut-in who paints one Renoir imitation after another; the local grocer viciously mocks his retarded assistant; and so on.

After learning of Princess Diana's death, Amélie stumbles upon a small tin box full of old toys, and contrives to find its owner, a middle-aged man who hid the box when he was a boy. Seeing the man's reverie of tears and wonder upon rediscovering this relic steels her resolve to become something like a guardian angel/secret detective, performing acts of surreptitious kindness (and impish revenge) to help strangers negotiate "the ebb and flow of universal woe." These ingenious and hilariously conceived "stratagems" include sending her father's garden gnome on an international voyage (complete with postcards), ghostwriting a lost love letter from a long-dead husband to a still-despondent widow, and playing matchmaker to a hapless couple.

Although she derives pleasure from these escapades, they ultimately only emphasize her feelings of invisibility (she never reveals herself to her beneficiaries). Amélie is constantly inventing her identity, constantly revealing herself as an avid seeker of an original reality. But she's so detached that she can only discuss herself in relation to a character in her neighbor's Renoir re-creations. What Amélie really craves is love--specifically, the love of the strange guy who digs around photo booths for discarded pictures, which he pastes into albums--and naturally, her quest for it requires the most elaborate stratagem of all (the better to forestall the inevitable happy ending).

Jeunet's film has drawn criticism in Europe, where it set box-office records, for not being "real." One review even went so far as to deem the film's glorified depiction of modern Paris (where are the other races?) irresponsible to the point of verging on fascism. Such complaints, while predictable, remain confounding in the face of a film of such celebratory sincerity. There is, after all, only one race: the human race. We are not speciated. And through all our isolation and division, we are united by love. If it takes an uplifting fantasy to state this idea, however whimsically and indirectly, then so much the better. Of course it's not real. It's better than real. What good's a fairy tale without a moral, anyway?