When discussing films with my peers, a critique I have heard more than once is that someone did not like a film because it wasn’t realistic. In fact, this is a critique I’ve heard about other art forms, too, such as novels, plays, and musicals. This sort of criticism has always seemed problematic to me. Why is it assumed that art forms are meant to be realistic? Why do we care if art is true-to-life? The 2001 French film Amélie, also known as Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, is decidedly unrealistic and thus provides the perfect case study when exploring these questions.
The audience is made acutely aware, from the very first few minutes of the film, that Amélie knows it is a film and does not pretend otherwise. It sits itself very firmly on the avant garde end of the spectrum. This is a sort of film of consciousness. It is emphatically a story, and it is emphatically artistic. At the very beginning of the film, the narrator explains that at a young age, “Deprived of playmates, slung between a neurotic and an iceberg, Amélie retreats into her imagination.” Amélie’s vivid imagination is crucial to her survival amidst a difficult home life. It is only fitting that the audience is given a glimpse into that imaginary world, as well. The result is a multitude of cinematic violations in which common conventions are routinely broken. These violations are made in order to convey this deeply subjective, creative, dream-like experience of the world.
One of the most commonly used cinematic violations in Amélie is a violation of a dramatic convention: the breaking of the fourth wall. Characters in the film, particularly Amélie herself, are constantly looking directly at the camera in a sort of wink to the audience. The film is seemingly trying to say that it knows the audience is there, and it is not going to pretend as if it doesn’t know it is being watched. A perfect example of this comes near the beginning of the film, as the narrator explains: “In 48 hours, [Amélie’s] life will change forever.” While this is being said, Amélie, knowingly, looks right at the camera.
Another example of this occurs at the very beginning of the film and poses some questions about the function of these cinematic violations within this particular film. As the audience is first being introduced to the world of imagination Amélie has created for herself, the narrator explains: “In this world…the neighbor’s comatose wife has chosen to get all her life’s sleep in one go.” Then, this woman, at first lying motionless in bed, sits up and says straight to the camera: “After this, I can stay awake day and night.” Amélie’s imagination is the only way she is able to make sense of the complicated and confusing world she experiences. This method of dealing with the world will continue throughout Amélie’s childhood and into adulthood.
There are countless other departures from cinematic conventions throughout this film that support this idea of the necessity of imagination in a world that can be so difficult to comprehend. A violation of consensus reality is made when Amélie falls in love with a man named Nino, and we are given a shot of in which her heart can be seen beneath her clothing. It beats visibly, and it glows. When Amélie is upset, she watches TV and views her own funeral, with a huge crowd in attendance mourning her loss. When Amélie undergoes a moment of realization, the screen becomes lighter and lighter until her image fades away; she is both literally and figuratively enlightened. Additionally, practically every scene in this film is given a sort of green tint to it; thus imagination is quite literally depicted onscreen.
“If Amélie chooses to live in a dream and remain an introverted young woman, she has an absolute right to mess up her life!” Though Amélie does, eventually, act on her feelings and begin a relationship with Nino, she does not ever leave the dream world she has inhabited her entire life that is visibly shown through these cinematic violations. In the final scene, she and Nino ride happily along the streets of Paris. There is still a greenish tint to the screen. The scene is sped up, the camera shakes, the image is blurry, and Nino and Amélie even make faces directly at the camera. Even after acting directly on her feelings and beginning a relationship with the man she loves, Amélie unapologetically remains a dreamer.
Amélie is undoubtedly unrealistic, like many other forms of art, but it is enjoyable not in spite of its unrealistic nature but because of it. So I think the question isn’t whether a film is realistic or not, but why a film is realistic or not. Does it make sense for a film to be unrealistic? What is its purpose? Is the film’s purpose to be realistic? I believe Amélie’s purpose is to be an embodiment of imagination so the audience can truly understand what it is like to live in a dream-world. So, yes, Amélie is unrealistic, and that’s exactly why I liked it.