The Oscars have just wrapped up and the big winner of the night was “Parasite,” which has the historic distinction of being the first foreign film to ever win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
Others have been nominated. In my lifetime, I remember “Life is Beautiful,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and recently we saw “Roma” come very close to winning.
While some people argue that “Parasite” wasn’t the best movie of the year (I think it’s pretty dang close), I think most people were happy because a foreign language film finally won best picture (“The Artist” might have had a French director and cast and producers, but it had very little dialogue and it was set in the United States and the very few spoken words in the movie were in English. In fact, a few American actors appeared in the film and it did not qualify for Best Foreign Language film that year).
Director Bong Joon-Ho of “Parasite” said something very powerful when he accepted his award at the Golden Globes this year: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
I couldn’t agree more.
While subtitles can be a hindrance at times (they require more concentration and might be harder on the eyes), they shouldn’t be a huge barrier. So many countries have amazing movies to offer and you shouldn’t limit yourself when it comes to artwork.
That’s why this month I wanted to highlight the first foreign language film I truly loved: “Amelie.”
This 2001 French romantic comedy is the highest grossing French film every released in the United States. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best foreign film, best original screenplay, best cinematography, best production design and best sound editing.
This lighthearted film follows a young woman who secretly orchestrates the lives of the people around her. She helps other people find their true selves but she neglects her own needs and wants and instead retreats into her world of imagination and fantasy.
I saw this film in theaters when I was in high school and I marveled at the screen. The colors. The symmetry. The characters. Later I would see this same artistry in films released by Wes Anderson but that director had not hit his stride yet at this time (The Royal Tenenbaums had not been released yet).
It was a revelation.
This might not be the world’s greatest movie but I sure did love it.
It’s hard to not be drawn in by this film. The music by Yann Tierson is gorgeous and I’ll listen to that soundtrack to this day. Never has accordion music sound so lovely. The plot keeps moving and it’s never boring. And the overall message of this film is that the world is a beautiful place and people are generally good. Who doesn’t want to curl up and watch that?
Some call this film corny or sappy. Oh, well. Perhaps it hit me at the right time. I was either 16 or 17 at the time. I was idealistic and full of hope. And here’s this story of a beautiful French woman with a childlike wonder of the world who just wanted to make people happy. She didn’t know her place in the world or what she was supposed to be or do. But she wanted to help others. When you’re a high schooler figuring out your way in life — getting crushes on girls in your classes and dreaming of the future — this kind of movie is very appealing.
One thing I think I found appealing about this movie is I could relate to Amelie, the protagonist played by Audrey Tautou. Not to sound sexist, but it’s strange for a high school boy to relate to a 25-year-old French woman. But her struggles are similar to what many of us face.
In the movie, she finds a collection of photographs in a book and she falls in love with the collector. She catches a glimpse of him when she attempts to return it and her love overwhelms her and she gets scared. She’s never had a real relationship. She doesn’t know what to do. So instead she plays a cat-and-mouse game with her would-be paramore and keeps avoiding her possible happiness. The idea of having what she wants in life scares her. She seems content to sit on the sidelines. She’s happy to pull the strings and help the love lives of others but doesn’t want to take control of her own life.
Amelie has a friend who advises her throughout her journey. A neighbor in her building called Mr. Glass (not the Samuel L. Jackson character). He’s a man with bones so brittle that he has to cover his television set with pillow cushions tied to it so he doesn’t hurt himself. She brings him gifts on occasion to cheer him up and he paints a portrait, again and again. It’s a famous painting he’s trying to recreate and he’s trying to get it just right. She looks at the woman in the painting and he tells her what the woman in the painting is thinking. Really, she’s talking about her own feeling and fears but she can’t admit them to anyone else, even a friendly hermit with nobody else to tell.
The old frail man tells Amelie she can’t be afraid of having her heart broken. She’s young and she should take the chance. Even if it doesn’t work out, she’ll be OK.
“Your bones aren’t made of glass, you can take life’s knocks,” he tells her.
Again, that quote hit me at that age. For a high school boy (almost a man), trying to get the courage to ask a girl out or to tackle the things in life you want, there’s always this fear of failure.
And it doesn’t go away in your twenties.
I would watch this movie again and again. In college, it was a mainstay in my DVD collection (this was pre-streaming). I would watch it when I was sad or when I was home sick. The themes still resonated with me but on a different level as my life progressed.
Now in my mid 30s, I watched the movie again recently before my trip to Paris with my wife. The film had a different effect on me in my current stage of life. No longer do I have the fear of jumping into something new or different. I don’t have fear of failure. I’ve started a business. I got married. We had a child. I ran for elected office. I’ve learned the lesson that I don’t have bones made of glass. I can take the knocks.
But I still loved the movie. I enjoyed seeing the character discover the truths in life that I eventually discovered myself and reflecting on my own journey to become who I am today.
When we went to Paris, we stayed in the Montmartre region. This is the neighborhood where Amelie was filmed and most of the movie takes place. It’s a part of Paris with narrow cobblestone roads, local butchers/artisans, sloping hills, vespa scooters and a Red Light district in Pigall if you turn on the wrong strong (the famous Moulin Rouge is in this area).
We ate lunch at the actual restaurant where Amelie works at in the movie. The once quaint restaurant has now turned into a tourist trap. They serve creme brulee there since Amelie mentions in the movie that she loves the sound of creme brulee cracking with a spoon (it’s never served at the restaurant in the movie).
The layout has changed from the film and there are plenty of displays of movie memorabilia and posters. Actually, the food was pretty good and it’s not a bad restaurant but the obvious appeal is that the movie was filmed there.
I know it sounds corny but I enjoyed looking at the bar where the characters overhead conversations and even use the restroom where two characters “fornicated” in the movie (it’s not a X-rated scene, I promise).
There’s something otherworldly about standing in the setting of one of your favorite movies.
There were a few other Montmartre landmarks from the movie that we passed by. We saw the fruit stand where Amelie tortured the merchant. And obviously Sacre Coeur is in a key scene of the movie.
While “Amelie” isn’t the most expertly made movie of all time, it certainly holds a place in my heart. It opened my eyes up to the artistry of foreign films and it made me feel something. That’s what great movies do. The help us reflect on our own lives. This is my first entry in my Featured Movie of the Month series and each month I plan to continue to share movies that affected me emotionally.