By Natalie Jones
As an introduction to the titular protagonist of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001), the narrator declares in the opening scene that she “cultivates a particular taste for the small pleasures” such as sticking her hand into a sack of rice, satisfyingly cracking crème brûlée with a spoon, and skipping stones across a river. Through this scene, the audience becomes almost instantly familiar with Amélie (Audrey Tautou), a character whose personality is defined and shaped by the minutiae of daily life.
A literature professor in my first year of college once used the “small pleasures” scene and the opening scene of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) as examples of effective storytelling. She maintained that these films’ methods of transmitting information to the audience were impressively efficient, precise, and direct. Indeed, their various commonalities—whimsical storylines, offbeat characters, and stylized settings—suggest that these films may operate in conjunction, or at least through a comparable methodology. However, what most distinguishes these films from one another is their contrasting approaches to character development—specifically, the extent to which each film’s characters are written to connect with their audiences.
In both Amélie and The Royal Tenenbaums, the characters’ idiosyncrasies are revealed through a voice-over narrative technique. When ninth-grader Margot Tenenbaum is not writing critically acclaimed plays, she is reading Chekhov and brooding in her bathtub. While the narrative device in The Royal Tenenbaums does focus on minute details in order to establish characters’ identities, it does so with the purpose of maintaining a recognizable distance between the audience and the characters.
We learn that Amélie is working a humble job as a café waitress in Montmartre. Her coworkers like cracking their knuckles, seeing athletes “cry without disappointment,” and watching bullfights on television. One coworker inexplicably despises the phrase, “fruit of thy womb.” The viewer is given individual details that make up each character’s identity, then offers the gleeful task of assembling them into a more panoramic view. This filmic decision contradicts the typical process of characterization built into mainstream film, which often features an archetype or a recognizable personality later rendered ‘complex’ through sudden revelations of detail and backstory. Their identities are uncovered only when details are excavated from their narrative pasts.
In Amélie, however, excavation of detail is not necessary: personal details and ‘clues’ of characterization are at the forefront, inviting the audience to piece them together. One day, by complete chance, Amélie discovers a small box filled with photographs, trinkets, and other unknown belongings from a stranger’s past, hidden behind a wall in her apartment. She decides to search for the original owner of the box, hoping to inspire happiness and to uplift others by performing good deeds.
By compiling these small trinkets into a larger framework, Amélie assembles intricate details and discovers the importance of individual narrative. She seeks a connection with the owner of the box, knowing that their personal belongings establish their identity. In this sense, the viewer follows identifying clues just as Amélie does within the film, ultimately creating a human connection between the viewer and the film’s characters. These details help the viewer establish a bond with characters who are likable, accessible, and unflinchingly genuine.
In a moment when Amélie sits in a movie theater, she suddenly smiles at the camera and whispers, “I like looking back at people’s faces in the dark.” The camera pans, revealing her fellow audience members gazing and grinning at the screen. We can practically see ourselves reflected back, enjoying the experience of watching a film that is so genuinely delightful. During this scene, Amélie reveals an additional personal trait to the audience: she likes to notice details in films that no one else sees. Ultimately, this film is about just that. Jean-Pierre Jeunet demonstrates an admiration for details, lovingly depicting his characters with the intensity and specificity that any human being requires. Amélie encourages its audience to participate in the process of combining small pleasures into a significant whole by regarding details as both minute and essential.