Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Secret Philosophical Themes Behind Amélie

Amélie is a 2001 comedy film by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (the director of The City of Lost Children, A Very Long Engagement, and Alien: Ressurection) starring Audrey Tautou (The Da Vinci Code). It tells the story of Amélie Poulain (Tautou), an imaginative, fun-loving and friendly, but very shy waitress, living in Paris. One day, she accidentally discovers a box that has been hidden in her apartment. When she opens it, she finds treasures that once belonged to a young boy years before. Amélie discreetly returns the box to its owner, and his reaction inspires her to strive to make others happy. One by one, she observes the people around her, and finds small but effective ways to improve their lives.

At first glance, Amélie appears to be simply a really fun comedy set against the backdrop of a somewhat stylized Paris, but if you strip away its layers and look closely, it actually deconstructs a philosophical concept.

For those of you have never taken an ethics course, the concept in question is known as Utilitarianism and entails quite simply that one should attempt to do as much good for as many people as possible. John Stuart Mill, a major believer in this ideology, stated “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness”. Amélie herself seems to hold this perspective even if she does not immediately realize it, given she changes the lives of several different people.

At the same time, however, the movie brings this concept into question — just how far should one go with this ideal? While she means well, Amélie goes to extreme lengths in her quest to make others happy. For instance, in an attempt to convince her father to travel more, Amélie steals his prized garden gnome. Then with some help from one of her friends, she has postcards mailed back to him depicting the gnome in front of various landmarks. While this eventually works, it does leave the father extremely frustrated for much of the movie as he tries to understand what is happening, and there is still the fact that Amélie basically committed an act of theft, even if it was done with good intentions. 

She also creates a fake letter from the dead husband of a neighbor saying he loved her (up until this point, the neighbor was grieving over his death but believed him to have been cheating on her) and outright lies about how it got to the neighbor. 

In another instance, she recovers a scrapbook dropped by the man she likes, and rather than immediately returning it, she keeps it and spends time looking through his secrets first. When she finally decides to return the scrapbook, instead of simply handing it to him, Amélie leads its owner through an elaborate set-up which ultimately allows him to watch her put the book into the bag on his bicycle. She then sends him a series of obscure clues by which she hopes to meet him.

Additionally, Amélie spends so much time helping others she eventually realizes she is neglecting herself. While she was able to help her friends in discreet and subtle manners, this does not work in her pursuit of romance. At one point, Amélie watches a television program which talks about a woman with the same name as her (also played by Tautou), who died from exhaustion at the young age of 23 because she spent so much time helping others she failed to look after herself, which in part inspires Amélie to search for her own happiness as well. 

Later on she even finds herself struggling with everyday activities, such as at the end, when, under the belief that the man she likes is seeing another woman, she has difficulty cooking. In fact, Amélie eventually has trouble appreciating the things she does for other people, as was shown when she completely ignores her excited neighbor’s attempts to talk about the “letter” she got (which Amélie had recently gone through the trouble of forging).

When she finds a man she likes, she wants to pursue a relationship, but even when he follows her clues, she cannot bring herself to confront him. She finally gains some confidence when she receives a tape from “the glass man” (an elderly artist whom Amélie helped to perfect one of his paintings), but ultimately Amélie is only able to confront him when she meets him by accident.

It could be argued that Amélie also has a tendency to see things in black and white; which at one point actually goes against her utilitarianism. Amélie sees a grocer mistreating her friend, and as a result, she decides to take it upon herself to punish him. She does this by repeatedly breaking into his apartment while he is at work and changing things to annoy him, such as changing his alarm clock, replacing his slippers with an identical pair of a different size, and switching the speed dial number for his mother with a psychiatric hotline. As hilarious as all of Amélie's pranks are, it is also a perfect example of a major flaw in her line of thinking.

Amélie's methods do help the person the grocer bullied, allowing him to interact more openly with customers, develop a close friendship, and discover a hidden artistic talent. However, Amélie thinks nothing of the man she continuously humiliates. This is a good example of the extremes Amélie is willing to go to, seeing as it clouds her judgment and unwittingly creates a double standard — Amélie is willing to help the partner by punishing someone she sees as a bad man, rather than trying to help them both by finding a way for them to reconcile their differences. 

Ultimately, Amélie can be seen almost as a deconstruction of utilitarianism. It emphasizes that while it may seem like a reasonable perspective it has its problems, particularly in the question of how far you should go. It also raises the point that even while helping others, you will still need to help yourself.

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