Amelie: an anomaly of the ‘Bordwell model’ for Art Cinema

 

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An in-depth analysis of the 2002 French romantic comedy

Realism. Authorship. Ambiguity. These are the foundations of art films as defined by professor David Bordwell. In his essay, The Art Cinema As A Mode Of Film Practice, he explains that films can be categorized into two divisions: classical and art*. Professor Bordwell argues that there is an evident mode of film practice that can be described as “art cinema,” and that this mode has a clear historical existence, a set of formal conventions, and implicit viewing procedures. Bordwell’s essay then goes on to clearly and efficiently take this assertion and defend it by illustrating a three tier mode of art film conventions that consists of, the afore mentioned, realism, authorship, and ambiguity. While his essay efficiently relates its thesis to classic art films like Breathless and L’Avventura, Bordwell only offers a vague notion of how his model works in relation to contemporary art cinema. He states that art cinema has always defined itself by its deviations from classical cinema. However, Bordwell then mentions that, over time, these two modes have acknowledged, influenced and even appropriated certain devices from one another. So while Bordwell offers a multitude of examples to support his thesis, ranging from films from the Italian Neo Realism movement to the French New Wave, his examples are, at the very least, 20 years old. If the consensus is that cinema evolves, and that the different esthetics of the classical and art modes shape one another, can Bordwell’s model accurately apply to the cinema of today? Do modern art films follow the mold of their predecessors or have some evolved into something new? To test this hypothesis I have chosen an art film crafted in the new millennium: Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s, Amélie. Bordwell assures that his three tiers of art cinema (realism, authorship, ambiguity) are remarkably constant even though stylistically devices and thematic motifs between filmmakers may differ. In regards to Amélie, I will assert that some contemporary art films, while inspired by their roots, have broken beyond art cinema classification and have evolved into hybrids that both embrace and resist their conventions. By comparing Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film to the Bordwell model, and how its dimensions of realism, authorship, and ambiguity are utilized, Amélie demonstrates that art cinema has indeed evolved.

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The first element of Bordwell’s model is realism. When analyzing a film based on this merit  Amélie suffers from a disadvantage before the first frame is even seen. While Miramax marketed the American distribution of the film as simply titled, Amélie, the full title is actually Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain. The loose translation of this title, The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain, immediately calls into question the function of realism in the film. With a title that sounds more like a fairy tale and less like an introspective portrayal of the human condition, the expectations for a realistic film are dashed further by the opening shot. The image of a picturesque, cobblestone street in Montmartre, France is beautiful yet otherworldly. Bordwell states that art cinema defines itself as a realistic cinema by incorporating real locations and realistic characters. Therefore the impressionist scene that introduces us to the world of Amélie seems as a departure from the professor’s model. Though this is true, Amélie does redefine the art cinema mode by incorporating the fantastic as well as the real.

Classical cinema favors studio production because, while it lacks the authenticity of location shooting, it does offer a maximum amount of control. Art cinema dispenses with the notion of studio shooting and instead prefers the realistic effect that can only be achieved by filming in real locations. Amélie prefers the latter, but indeed does both. A majority of the film was shot on location in Montmartre and other neighborhoods in Paris, France. While French New Wave films like Breathless noticeably feature the city of Paris, (inside and out) so too does Amélie. Major landmarks like the Gare du Nord train station and Notre Dame Cathedral were utilized for production. Likewise smaller sites like, the Two Windmill’s cafe, the market Bretodeau ventures through, and Collignon’s fruit stand were not constructs. On the audio commentary of the DVD, the films director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet states that, while he prefers to shoot on sound stages, the majority of Amélie was shot on location. Much of the esthetic of the art film is a sense of place, and Amélie is constantly referring to its setting with panoramic rooftop views of the city, stylistic establishing shots of its architecture, and portrait-like compositions of its citizens. However, while Jean-Pierre Jeunet may feature Paris as a character in his film, Amélie like Breathless, offers an altered vision of reality. However, Amélie doesn’t use the art cinema mode as a reflection of the truth  but rather a subjective version of the truth.  Real locations, such as the Paris subway and train station, have been cleaned, rearranged, and modified to convey a city that is real, but hardly true. Jeunet even uses computer-generated enhancements to alter details such as the shape of a cloud, the path of a fly or even the skipping of a stone.

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While Amélie’s realism of location is interestingly complex, its use of realistic characters is just as peculiar. The Bordwell model describes the characters of art cinema as psychologically complex and therefore more real than classical cinema characters. The characters of Amélie don’t seem to fit this description. They are more like caricatures of eccentricity. However, while most are strange, the namesake of the film does share aspects that Bordwell equates to art cinema characters. The examples of alienation and lack of communication that he uses are coincidently precise for the encapsulation of the character of Amélie. She is described as an “introverted” young woman who can’t relate to others. This seems typical of art films, but again Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film incorporates both art and classical models to create someone unique. Amélie is indeed complicated, but the basis for her isolation contrasts the realism of Bordwell’s model. Her character’s development is presented in an exaggerated and unusual manner. For example, as a child, Amélie’s father assumes her to have a heart condition based on a comical assumption. He deems her unfit for public school, and therefore leads her to a childhood of alienation that becomes an equally introverted adulthood. Also, the death of her mother at a young age further complicates her psyche, but while tragedy is a common thread in the development of an art cinema protagonist, in Amélie it is fantastic and bizarre. Claudia in L’Avventura may share many of the same feelings of isolation and romantic longing as Amélie, but her emotions stem from more rational and plausible tribulations. Eccentric parents and an extraordinary tragedy are decidedly unrealistic basis of complexity next to Claudia’s. And yet, Jeunet claims inspiration from reality. The suicide at Notre Dame was based partially on a real event, however, placed in the context of the rest of the film, truth becomes stranger than fiction. Still, the Bordwell model holds up well substantially with regard to Amélie’s other character qualities. The lack of defined goals, the idea that choices are vague or nonexistent and characters questioning themselves, are traits that are all apparent in Amélie.

Amélie’s goal is quite different than that of a classical film heroine. The model describes art cinema as characterized by having protagonists with roughly shaped objectives that, while drifting episodically, trace an itinerary. This describes Amélie perfectly. Her progression from the beginning of the film to the end is sketchy and not precise. As a child Amélie prays for a companion. As she grows up and the story progresses Amélie still has this wish, but she alternates among other goals before finally meeting Nino at the end. So, as Bordwell suggests, Amélie travels a roughly shaped journey, being as a guardian angel for others, before reaching her objective.

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The causation of Amélie’s adventures is also in keeping with Bordwell’s description of art cinema. If the classical protagonist acts, then the art protagonist reacts. Amélie is a film that plays with the notion of serendipity. This is an idea akin to the art cinema reflection of vague choices. Most of Amélie’s actions are based on a reaction to coincidence and chance. Because she is shocked to hear of Lady Di’s death, Amélie just happens to drop her perfume cap that just happens to collide with a loose tile that just happens to be concealing a secret box. She then decides to track down the owner of the box, a decision that inadvertently leads her to the meddling into her neighbors lives, and ultimately her own fulfillment. The classical heroine would simply cut to the chase, whereas Amélie drifts passively, but determinedly, from one situation to another. Her choices and motivation can ultimately be deemed as unclear. There is no clear understanding as to why Amélie decides to become a “regular do-gooder.” And that is in keeping with the art cinema model.

A final demonstration of the model of the psychologically complex character, relates to Amélie and her drifting between episodes. Amélie is often left reflecting on her decisions. Before setting out to find the owner of the box, Amélie lies in her bed and contemplates what she will do. The bedroom becomes her space to reflect upon the choices she’s made or has yet to make. Bordwell describes the art cinema heroin as a supersensitive individual on whom nothing is lost. Amélie’s fantastic subjectivity of the world definitely defines her as a supersensitive individual and her assertion that she likes “noticing details that no one else sees,” seems in keeping with the art cinema protagonist. Also, Bordwell asserts that during the film’s survey of its world, the art cinema heroine sometimes succumbs to her emotional sensitivity and breaks down. This happens, again in the introspective setting of the bedroom, as Amélie cries over her choices and missed opportunities. So while the film has its share of peculiar departures from traditional art cinema characters it mostly keeps in practice with the model’s codes and conventions.

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Between the reality of locations and the reality of characters, Jean-Pierre Jeunet has developed a traditional art cinema model with a unique blend of classical cinema touches. This hybrid formula is also applied to a final conception of art film realism that Bordwell relates to as the spatial and temporal construction of the model. These are violations of the classical conceptions of space and time.   There are a wide variety of possibilities ranging from documentary factuality to intense psychological subjectivity. Amélie is mostly classical in its use of time and space, but there are significant moments where manipulations are meant to represent character subjectivity.

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Bordwell states that one technique that exemplifies this is the flashback. Amélie is consistently highlighted with the frequent appearance of flashbacks. Many characters are introduced with a small, cut away sequence that relates to their subjectivity; be it events from their past or their personal likes and dislikes. While some are traditional flashback memories others are more complicated to define. Bretodeau, the man Amélie tracks down has a flood of memories from his childhood that is more in keeping with the classical flashback. The narrator even precedes the sequences by saying “in a flash, it all came back.” However, other flashbacks are more difficult to categorize. When the narrator introduces Suzanne, the owner of the Two Windmills, there is a mix of flashback and subjective imagery. There is a flashback that is presumably a memory of her seeing a man humiliated in front of his child, but there is also an image that is meant to represent Suzanne’s appreciation crying athletes. The second image however does not feature Suzanne, but is merely stock footage. Both images are connected by their adjacent placement in editing, use scratchy, black and white film and reference to the context of a character’s thoughts. However, it is arguable that the latter image can categorized as the character’s subjectivity and is not, specifically, a flashback. It is more of a visual representation of the characters feelings. A more explicit example of this subjective imagery is the black and white montage that relates to Georgette, the tobacconist. Georgette is introduced immediately after Suzanne, but instead of a flashback of something she witnessed, there is a black and white, kaleidoscope of images that represent her hypochondria. In the end, whether they are traditional flashbacks or subjective imagery, these are untraditional uses of temporal and spatiality exemplified in the Bordwell model. Amélie has classical uses, but its unorthodox displacements of time and space are more conducive to the mode of art films.

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After analyzing realism in art cinema it is clear that Amélie does not fit his pattern perfectly. While the film shares many characteristics there are also many discrepancies. Jean-Pierre Jeunet is famous for nontraditional filmmaking, but reality has not been a priority for him in the past. Delicatessen and City of Lost Children are surrealistic examples of this. Still, there is a case to be made for Amélie and the next Bordwell component of authorship is more indicative of the art cinema model.

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Authorship is the second pillar in the Bordwell three tier mode of art cinema. The professor’s essay defines authorship as the concept that “foregrounds the author as a structure in the film’s system.” While this doesn’t assert that the director’s film must be biographical this definition is implying that the filmmaker becomes the central figure of the project with creative control covering all aspects of production. Of course this contention assumes that the art filmmaker has creative freedom and is not controlled by studios. In an interview in the October, 2001 issue of The Onion AV club, Jean-Pierre Jeunet commented on the authorial freedom in France compared to his experience in Hollywood. “In France, I am so free. I have more freedom than most American directors could dare to even imagine. In the States, I learned to fight for every idea.” So, if analyzing Amélie with this in mind, the viewer can observe many authorial traits that are congruent with Bordwell’s model.

The first convention that the model refers to is the stylistic signatures in the narration of the art film; either technical touches or obsessive motifs. Jeunet asserts, in his DVD commentary and press interviews, that his personal style is reflected in every aspect of his film. “I love to play with everything: the sound, the costumes, the camera.” Since a reoccurring theme in his movies is fantasy, Jeunet forgoes esthetic realism in favor of personally crafting his worlds to meet his own vision. So while Amélie was the director’s first feature that was filmed mostly on location, those locations are all tailored to suit Jeunet’s, and most likely Amélie’s, perception of Paris. In fact, Jeunet states that he did most the location scouting himself because he “wanted to show the Paris I love.” These comments are examples of the director is direct assessment of his authorial style, but by simply observing Amélie, and comparing it to Jeunet’s previous films, an insight into his personal signature can be yielded.

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Visually, Jeunet has an eye as abstract has the stories he tells. Although Darius Khondji, his cinematographer for every film (including his Hollywood effort Alien: Resurrection), did not shoot Amélie, the same abstract camera movements, angles, and visual esthetic are all there. One of the most noticeable aspects of the style of Jeunet’s films is how carefully composed his shots are. A sequence in City of Lost Children, where a strange green mist weaves in and out of the alleyways of the city, is just as coordinated and kinetic as the sequence in Amélie where Nino who is being chased by Amélie is chasing the repairman. Jeunet is also fond of using short lenses, to capture close ups and facial expressions, and makes it a common practice to place the camera low to the ground [of], substantially far away [from], or even directly above the action of the scene. Occasionally he will use canted or slanted angles, whip pans, and frantic editing to create images that seem fresh. If Bordwell’s model states that the art cinema defines itself explicitly against the classical mode, then Jeunet work in Amélie proves he is an unconventional director in both subtle and blatant ways.

An example of an untraditional scene that is achieved through Jeunet’s personal vision is when the 6-year-old Amélie discovers her gold fish has attempted suicide. The cinematography and editing are very creative and not found often in classical cinema. As the scene begins, the camera dollies quickly in from a long shot to a medium shot of Amélie screaming. The next frame is an extreme high angle of her mother reacting followed by a close up that dollies to an extreme close up of Amélie screaming. Next, a bird’s eye shot shows Amélie’s mother on the floor of the kitchen, trying to use a broom to save the goldfish, followed by a quick, low angle shot of Amélie screaming. The next shot is set on the ground and underneath the appliance the fish is trapped under. Amélie’s mother tries to rescue the fish with a vacuum attachment. Again the camera returns to Amélie screaming, as it strikingly pans and dollies around her in a rapid movement. The proceeding shot is a new angle of Amélie’s father trying to save the fish before the cutting to a shot of Blubber plopping in his bowl. The scene ends with a visual punctuation mark as the camera dollies back from the fishbowl and rack focuses to an extreme close up of Amélie’s mother. Unusual angles, fast editing, and sharp elliptical and spatial representations between cuts (while Amélie’s scream is constant) make this sequence a decidedly unconventional example of Jeunet’s style.

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Mise-en-scene as just as carefully coordinated as cinematography in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films. Both City of Lost Children and Amélie have similar color motif. Reds, greens, and yellows are utilized in everything from costumes, to sets, to lighting. Amélie’s bedroom is predominately red, while Dufayel has a green kitchen. City of Lost Children features green mist, green water, red Santa Clauses, and even the little girl Miette wearing a red dress. Amélie herself alternates between green and red clothing. And everything at the Twin Windmills, from the straws to the bathroom door, is contrasted in red and green and yellow. Other authorial touches to mise-en-scene can be seen in the symmetrically organized sets. The decorations, props, and set pieces in Amélie’s, Collignon’s, and the lonely landlady’s apartments are all specifically designed to express the manner and feel of each character. Every frame conveys an amazing wealth of unspoken information. The multitude and variety of miniscule details is so rich in a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film that his authorial signature is unmistakable.

Ultimately authorship comes down to the question of who is telling the story, and with Amélie the idea of Jean-Pierre Jeunet as the author seems unquestionable. He has contributed to the storytelling of all his French films. He wrote the screenplay to Delicatessen and corroborated with his screenwriters on City of Lost Children. But with Amélie, Jeunet leaves more of an authorial feel than any of his previous films for a variety of reasons.

The script of Amélie is actually based on a whole host of true stories from the director’s life. Blubber’s suicide attempt and Bretodeau’s spilling of his marbles are just two of many personal memories incorporated into the film. The photo book is another real life inspiration. Jeunet’s friend, a hobbyist like Nino, collected abandon photo booth portraits and his book was integrated in the script and recreated for the film. The sentimental filmmaker also cast for Amélie many of the same actors he’s worked with in previous projects. Dominique Pinon, for instance, has appeared in every one of Jeunet’s films. He speaks, on the DVD, of how the influences of his favorite filmmakers have effected his own style. A fan of movies, the director mentions that his preference of close ups and short lenses comes from admiring Orson Wells and Sergio Leone films. He even sights Looney Toons director Tex Avery as an influence.

Bordwell asserts that authorial expression manifests itself in citations or the referencing of and homage to other films. So not only is Jeunet’s visual style inspired but also his characters and casting. Characters in Amélie, such as the failed writer Hipolito, or actors, like Claire Maurier from 400 Blows, are references to Jeunet’s favorite films. Also, the music that the blind man listens to in the subway station is directly referencing Stanley Kubrick’s The Shinning. These are just a few examples that evoke the model of authorial signatures.

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But again, Bordwell asks us to consider, “how is this story being told? Why is this story being told this way?” He concludes by stating that a realistic aesthetic and an expressionist aesthetic will be the means by which the art film unifies itself. Bordwell says that this vary notion is contradictory, but offers an explanation that exemplifies the idea of authorship. A staple of art cinema narration is the idea of the intrusive, all knowing, narrator. He is a negation to the realism of the art film, yet Bordwell insists he is a necessary component. Amélie features a literal narrator that can very well be an inference to the director as narrator; since Amélie is Jeunet’s story and his personal vision is reflected throughout the film. This narrator fit’s Bordwell’s description of an omniscient being who teases the audience with knowledge that the characters have no way of knowing. The idea is practiced in other art films and in Amélie a technique that relates to this is the use of the flash forward.

In classical cinema, this device is unthinkable, but in art cinema it is another deviation of the Hollywood model that marks an authorial narrative. Amélie has a brief and simple flash forward that only encompass a few shots, but it is enough to associate the film with more of Bordwell’s guidelines of authorship.

Jeunet’s film seems to comply as a hybrid to the Bordwell formal model presented in Art Cinema As Mode Of Practice. While Amélie has innovative uses of art cinema practices, in relation to reality and authorship, it is more interrelated to art films then classical. In every instance, Amélie feels like the work of an expressive individual and less like a studio production as a review of the third and final tier of Bordwell’s foundation will show.

This requisite, for the mode of art cinema, lies with the assertion of ambiguity. The clashing of realistic esthetics against authorial expressivity is a dilemma that is solved by a response from the refined viewer. Bordwell argues that because art cinema deviates from classical cinema there are often gaps and problems with the narrative. However, because the departure of the classical mode is intentional they can then be attributed to realism or authorial commentary. Therefore, the Bordwell model asks of its audience to simply accept the problems (whether causation, temporality, or spatiality) and justify them as either realistic or authorial motivation.

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The first rationalization of any inherent art cinema problems is always realistic motivation. Bordwell advises that if, by analyzing the problem, it can be attributed to the aesthetics of realism then this is the most plausible explanation. An example of a question that should be asked is, “do things like this happen in real life to explain the problem?” If this reasoning doesn’t work then Bordwell posits that the viewers fall back on a default explanation: in all instances where a problem in causation, temporality, or spatiality cannot be answered by realistic motivation it should be answered by authorial motivation. While reality asks if things like this happen in life, authorship relies on other questions. The viewer must consider that the film is trying to express something in an unconventional manner and that there is a purpose for violating the classical mode.

There are many ambiguities in the narrative of Amélie. Before they can be classified, they must be identified. Bordwell writes that the slogan of art cinema is, “When in doubt, read for maximum ambiguity.” He then uses L’Avventura, with its plot holes and opened ended narrative, to exemplify what an art film is like. Claudia and Sandro’s future is uncertain, but Amélie and Nino seemingly live happily ever after. They same can be said about Amélie’s father, Dufayel, and Bretodeau. However, these minor resolutions do not mean that Amélie is not comparable to L’avventura. There are several problems with the causality in both films. When Amélie encounters Nino for the second time he spontaneously runs past her to chase a man for seemingly no reason. When Lucin delivers the champagne and caviar to Dufayel there is no explanation for why they were hidden, nor is there any motivation for Lucin to suddenly become Dufayel’s protégé.

Gaps like these can often be solved with the explanation of realistic motivation. The answer that Bordwell offers (in life things happen this way) seems reasonable. Nino could have quite possibly recognized the repairman from his photo book, and Dufayel may not be allowed by his Doctor to have indulgences, like champagne, due to health problems. And since Lucin makes deliveries and runs errands for Dufayel he might have expressed an interest in art.

Other causational gaps are less realistic and moral authorial in their reasoning. When Amélie witnesses Colligen belittling Lucin in front of customers she turns to a cellar window behind her. A man, inexplicitly, whispers a comeback that she uses to humiliate Colligen. This is a violation of normalcy in the classical sense, and doesn’t seem to have a realistic motivation. Therefore the Bordwell model defaults to authorial motivation. The possibilities for the justification of something unrealistic as this can be credited to the likes of character subjectivity and the author’s vision. Other examples would be Amélie melting onto the floor or turning into Zorro.

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There are also temporal and spatial discrepancies that can be attributed to realistic and authorial motivation. The advance from Amélie’s childhood to adulthood is demonstrated in a series of shots with her teddy bear. While the four shots represent summer, fall, winter, and spring, the bear ages seventeen years. This is a stylized temporal gap, but it is realistically motivated. The same can be said of Amélie’s incredible speed when she assembles the false love letter. It is strange to see her using scissors incredibly fast, then pause in real time, and then continue in project in hyper speed. But the audience, again, must ask why is this happening? A classical technique would be to repeat the elliptical shots that were used when Amélie was reading the letters. But Jeunet does not do this. It is not realistic so therefore it is the design of the author. There are other motives that a classical director isn’t concerned with. So when Amélie rides on the train to search for Bretodeau or when she sits behind Nino on his motorcycle, the motion of the scene is affected for a purpose. It is similar to the scissor scene, but not the same. Instead of showing a long process in a short amount of time, the change in film speed has become another subjective expression. It is a device used for emotional, rather than utilitarian purposes. Whenever Amélie looks at the camera, and breaks the fourth wall, the spatial manipulation is designed to convey a message. The answer is maximum ambiguity. Jeunet is asserting his mark and saying, in Amélie, you are witnessing the perception of another reality. This film is the perception of the imaginative mind of a character and a filmmaker.

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Amélie may not fit the David Bordwell model of art cinema perfectly, but it shares more of its characteristics than contemporary Hollywood cinema. While professor Bordwell relates his thesis to films like 400 Blows, Wild Strawberries, and The Seventh Seal, he offers no room for the art cinema of today. If classical and art cinema are always evolving and contributing to one another, it is understandable that movies will begin to change. The art films of the future will not remain confined to any one-ridged model, but evolve to incorporate new techniques and esthetics. Amélie is an example of how art cinema has developed from the film movements of the past. It is a film that has grown from the foundations of Bordwell’s sound model to become an art film of its time. The exploration of reality, authorship, and ambiguity of Amélie compared to the outlined of The Art Cinema As A Mode Of Film Practice essay shows a film that holds true to its roots, yet doesn’t stay confined by them. Amélie bends the rules of reality. In a film about fantasy it compensates by showing the real world from an unreal perspective. Amélie holds true to the idea of authorship. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s style is immediately recognizable to viewers. A comparison of his earlier work reinforces the idea thatAmélie is a personal story that was mandated by the director. Finally, Amélie has its share of ambiguity. There are many gaps and problems that are only associated with art cinema, but they also unique and mark the film as belonging to a new generation. Amélie is an anomaly of the Bordwell model, but it certainly relates. It was inspired by the art cinema of the past and will definitely be the inspiration of the art cinema of the future.

 

*Well, there’s also Avant-garde film

 

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