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Loving the French 

Have you ever seen a French flick surrounded by a bunch of French people? It's really a sight to behold: lots of yammering in the native tongue and hugging and cheek pecking, and a lot less head bobbing during the movie because, of course, they don't need to strain their necks for those damn subtitles. (There should be seating assignments for foreign-film screenings, especially at the stadium seat-challenged Canal Place -- by height.)

That's one thing. But to watch a romantic comedy as breezy, warm and delightful as Jean-Pierre Jeunet's highly touted Amelie is something in itself, mainly because the hugging and cheek pecking carries over through what feels like the duration of the film. And with good reason, for Jeunet has crafted a story that plays right into the French's love of l'amour. So sticky-sweet is this movie that couples on either side of me during a promotional screening, which in part was sponsored by the local French Consulate, spent most of the time cooing and smooching. Where's your girlfriend when you need her most?

Jeunet was Marc Caro's co-director for those twisted and loony, post-apocalyptic efforts Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995). But, save for a bizarre death as the result of a falling Quebecois tourist, Jeunet's new movie eschews much of the dark humor and haze that coated those previous films. Instead, he bathes his work in pulsating colors and a Jane Austen plot that is unashamedly sentimental. Simply put, Jeunet's no French New Wave fan, and has said as much.

In fact, his title character Amelie is played by Audrey Tautou with an exuberance and quirky charm that recalls another Audrey at her finest. Her brunette bob even looks like an update of Audrey Hepburn's; her brown eyes are both mischievous and certain, even if her fate isn't.

Which is really what the film is about; Amelie, like Austen's Emma, finds her stride in helping others while her own life is a ball of confusion. In a rapid-fire set-up, sort of a biographical update that Jeunet tells in the same spirit of the Coen Brothers' Raising Arizona, we are presented with an Amelie born to uptight parents with decided likes and dislikes that don't bode well for their daughter. And when her mother dies -- thanks to the aforementioned falling tourist -- the little girl is left with a distant though loving father and a life path she must forge on her own.

As the narrator notes, Amelie likes to sink her hands into sacks of grain, its varied textures shaping themselves around her briefly drowning fingers. She likes to gently crack the sweet veneer of a créme brulee, and she likes collecting stones and skimming them across the water; the stones are like her, always kissing the surface but unwilling to test the depth. She is, as her artist neighbor Dufayel notes, like the girl with the glass of water in Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party: "She's in the middle [of the party], but she's on the outside."

Amelie, mourning the death of Lady Di, decides to fix everyone else's life until she can figure out what to do with her own. That includes returning a long-lost tin box of mementos to an older man who once lived in her apartment decades ago, and playing matchmaker for a hypochondriac co-worker and regular customer at her Montmartre cafe (Dominique Pinon, Delicatessen's Louison). In one of the film's funniest running gags, Amelie tries to inspire her father to take that world trip he's always talked about by swiping his treasured gnome, setting it against snapshot backgrounds of distant lands (Rome, Cambodia), and anonymously mailing the photos back to him in what feels like the most cruel but fitting of taunts.

Amelie reluctantly meets her true love in former classmate Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz, reminiscent of a young Daniel Auteuil with his soft eyes and sharp nose and chin). When he's not marking time behind the counter of the sex shop where he works, Nino culls out unwanted snapshots from photo booths in search of a mystery man. Amelie is intrigued and in love, and initiates a cat-and-mouse game that, while as cute as the movie itself, ultimately breaks the cool, assured rhythm that Jeunet has built. For as Dufayel warns, "Love is like the Tour de France; it can fly right by you. You need to catch it while you can." One can't help but fear Jeunet couldn't let go of his story (which he co-wrote with Guillaume Laurant).

Otherwise, Jeunet succeeds in his manipulative sweetness, taking advantage of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel's scenes shot in rich colors (the reds of Amelie's apartment, the mysterious greens of the subway) to create a vibrant story of love and destiny perfect for his countrymen. All you have to do is plop a few French couples down on either side of you to see why. Or look straight ahead. Either way's fine.

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