Few experiences compare with the sense of anticipation that hums through a movie theater when the lights fade and a film begins. In recent years few features have warranted such a buzz of expectation. Amelie (Le Fabuleux destin d’Amelie Poulain) is one that does. Adjectives like magical and charming can only approximate its ability to create an appealing fantasy world. It’s a rich and imaginative work that delights from the opening credits, a sweet confection that should be savored more than once.

The film starts with Amelie (rhymes with "Family") as a young child, born to a neurotic mother and emotionally distant father. She longs for her father’s affection, so much so that her heart races every time he uses his stethoscope to examine her (he’s a physician). He diagnoses a heart condition and she’s kept away from other human contact. Her mother dies (in a blackly hilarious scene) and she’s raised in the countryside until she’s old enough to leave home and take a waitress job at the Two Windmills cafe in Paris. She discovers a tin box hidden at her flat that contains artifacts of a young boy’s long-ago childhood. Amelie decides to find its owner and reunite him with the toys of his youth. Thus begins her new part-time job and full-time philosophy: making people happy.

But Amelie’s own joy remains elusive. There’s no special person in her life. Then she meets Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), a clerk in a porno shop. His hobby is collecting discarded picture fragments from automated photo booths and reassembling them in a scrapbook. Amelie is smitten – but just as her father didn’t judge her heart strong enough to withstand the rigors of a "normal" life, neither does she trust that it can bear the demands of love. So her strategies for meeting Nino are as convoluted and intriguing as the means she uses to enhance other peoples’ lives and the practical jokes she plays on a local grocer who cruelly demeans his assistant.

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s previous film Alien: Resurrection was a decidedly darker (and unsuccessful) departure from his prior works. Here he returns to the lightness and wonder that marked his Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children and with screenwriter Guillaume Laurent uses magical realism to create an effervescent world of unrequited love, suicidal goldfish, photo booth intrigue and elaborate courtship schemes. One never quite knows what is going to happen next, and is rarely disappointed by the wondrous things that Jeunet pulls from his magical director’s hat. He takes frequent and colorful side trips to examine unusual details, such as showing each character’s likes and dislikes. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s Paris is brightly awash in cotton-candy pastels scrubbed squeaky clean and inviting, and the Yann Tiersen soundtrack supplies a worthy theme for Amelie’s elfin expeditions.

Of course, all of this whimsy falls apart in an instant if Amelie can’t win our heart. But Audrey Tautou is a winsome sprite who’s more than up to the task. Glowing with an impish inner beauty worthy of a working-class Audrey Hepburn, she delivers an enthralling performance made even more laudable by her lack of dialog. In most scenes her eyes are asked to do all the talking, and they speak more eloquently than any ten Joe Eszterhas screenplays.

Amelie presents an idealized Paris, far too sanitized and homogenized to ever pass for the real thing. It’s more of a theme park look – a world that you suspect could never exist, but secretly hope could. But don’t let words like magical and charming lead you to dismiss Amelie as a fluffy trifle. It deals with some fundamental human themes: love, loneliness, self-confidence and insecurity. In many ways it’s as light and sweet as cotton candy. But unlike the circus confection, its essence will stay with you long after you’ve enjoyed it.

– Bob Aulert

The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain