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retrospective

Scott WilsonI8.2.2022
Why Amélie Still Holds Up in the Digital Age
More than 20 years after its release, the French classic remains as relevant as ever.

“My little Amélie, you don’t have bones of glass. You can take life’s knocks. If you let this chance pass, eventually, your heart will become as dry and brittle as my skeleton.”

Amélie is a kind-hearted young woman, always putting others before herself. From her vantage point working as a waitress at the Café des 2 Moulins, she sees the everyday lives and loves of the people in her Montmartre neighborhood. After tracking down the owner of a box of childhood memorabilia she finds hidden in her apartment, she decides to spend all her time bringing the same happiness to others.

But what of herself? She inspires her dad to see the world, helps a blind man cross the road, instigates a romance between a co-worker and a customer, and yet, she hesitates to devote the same attention to herself. While she eventually allows herself some happiness with Nino, following a prolonged cat-and-mouse game, she spends much of the film as a side character in everyone else’s story. 

The film centers on the selflessness of Amélie Poulain and the ways in which she struggles to treat herself the way she so lovingly treats others. It’s a timeless theme: someone putting themselves at the back of the queue to prioritize everyone else. But in 2022, it feels more relevant than ever. Despite being released this side of the millennium, Amélie is an internet-less film. In 2001, lives were not played out on social media, and everyone looked more at faces than screens in our palms. 

What Amélie shares with many of us twenty years later is in playing the role of an observer, a critic. She is moved by what she sees, charmed by love, and angered by bullying. She acts on these things too, by tormenting the abusive grocer Collignon after witnessing the way he treats his colleague Lucian. But she’s spurred into action on behalf of Lucian, in much the same way people rally around sympathetic figures online. She is motivated by righteousness, never her own interests. 

Despite being released this side of the millennium, Amélie is an internet-less film. In 2001, lives were not played out on social media and everyone looked more at faces than screens in our palms. 

It takes her equally observant neighbor, the reclusive and aging artist Raymond Dufayel, to call her out on the ways she diminishes her own importance. Dufayel repaints Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party every year, never quite satisfied with how he interprets the girl drinking the glass of water. This leads to a conversation with Amélie in which she is able to project her own sense of loneliness onto the painting. 

It brought to mind a quote by researcher Brené Brown: “I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time. Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.” 

That fear of taking part is in Amélie, and it’s in our everyday lives, more so now than ever. Amélie, all of us, we don’t want to get our asses kicked. There are more observers than ever too, and they are not all as warm-hearted as Amélie and Dufayel. Not everyone is rooting for everyone else, like Joseph, a scorned former lover of Amélie’s co-worker who obsessively documents her every interaction with another man. We are invited to be judgmental almost every minute of the day, and it is not always easy to make the kind choice. Sometimes we become the ass-kickers, keeping the attention on someone else. 

Amélie spends a lot of time outside of the arena. She intuitively knows what will bring happiness to others but needs encouragement before opening herself up to the same thing. With happiness comes risk, but everyone she helps embraces that risk, which she herself shies away from. There is comfort in being an observer, an outside force only ever concerned with the affairs of others. That is something we are constantly tempted by on devices in our pockets, convincing many of us to become wrapped up in other people’s lives while neglecting our own. 

That fear of taking part is strong. Failure is embarrassing, or disappointing, or heart-breaking. Comfort does not require courage. But as Dufayel says, Amélie does not have bones of glass. She can take life’s knocks. She even experiences one before her happy ending, wherein she believes her co-worker Gina is trying to come between her and Nino, whom she has been toying with and thrillingly toyed with in return. As soon as she puts herself out there, she risks being burned, and for a time believes that to be the case. 

But in the end, it is worth it. She perseveres through this emotional wobble. Of course she does, as we all do. The mistake is corrected, Nino tracks Amélie down, and they share an ASMR-worthy exchange of kisses. The film ends with her joyful on Nino’s scooter, blissfully resting against his shoulders, smiling at the camera. That momentary fourth wall break is an acknowledgment of the audience as an observer too, in which we have hoped for Amélie’s happiness, and now, in the film’s final moments, she lets us know that choosing courage over comfort is the best way to live. That’s a valuable note to end on—a kind of “over to you”–at a time it’s so easy to lose yourself to browsing and liking and commenting on everyone else’s lives over our own. Amélie decides, with a little encouragement from a friend, to get in the arena. Let’s remember to join her. It’s what she would want.

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