Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Amélie and Philosophy, 5

In the first post of this series I said that the plot-theme of the movie, the specific driver of its events, was the decision by Amélie to "fix other people's lives and perhaps her own as well."

But what is its theme? What is the meaning of all the different events of the film—in other words, what does the progression of events add up to?

I submit that the theme of Amélie is "the need to face reality (or one’s fears) in order to attain happiness."

This theme can be seen as the integrating factor throughout the entire evolution of Amélie. The posts in this series have shown this clearly—at least in the case of the movie’s main character. Let’s look at some of the other characters.

Amélie’s father, towards the beginning of the film, has anti-social tendencies—which only increase after the death of his wife. He becomes obsessed with building a tiny shrine to house his late wife’s ashes. Amélie, who knows of his desire to see the world, takes a gnome from the shrine and has a flight attendant send pictures back of it traveling around. At film’s end, we see her father with two suitcases in hand, heading to the international airport.

Bretodeau is, towards the beginning of the film, estranged from his daughter—who he has heard recently had a baby boy. After Amélie returns an old tin box, containing all his childhood treasures, he realizes how quickly time has gone by—and decides to re-unite with his family "before [he] is in a box" too. At film’s end, we see him sharing one of his favorite pleasures with his happy grandson.

In both of the above cases, the steps these men had to take were difficult ones—especially within their relative contexts. But, like Amélie, they looked at things as they were and as they could be, then found the courage to act appropriately.

The theme is also dramatized in the character of Joseph. From the beginning of the film to the end, Joseph actually doesn’t progress at all. He starts out as a pathologically jealous ex-boyfriend (imagining conspiracies against him at every turn) and he ends the film as such.

So, in what way is his character a dramatization of the theme? Well, if the theme is as I stated—"the need to face reality (or one’s fears) in order to attain happiness"—his character provides an excellent example of it. He does so, in reverse, by showing the unhappy state of a person who doesn’t see or act on things as they are—but rather on some twisted version of them.

In a sense, horrible as it is to even contemplate, had Amélie not made her final decision to go get Nino, the horrible person who is Joseph is the type of person she could have become. (This point isn’t made in the film—though it is approached in Dufayel’s last comments to Amélie.)

Finally, let me state what the theme of the movie is not. It is not, as many reviewers have suggested, that "one achieves happiness by doing good things for others."

It actually amazes me that reviewers have said this at all, given that she does some very mean things (to a person who deserves it) and is actually unhappy for much of the film until she (finally) chooses to worry about her own life—not to mention the very explicit comments by Dufayel advising her to fix her own messy life first.

The proper naming of the theme here is important because it allows one to make sense of the movie as a complete whole.

And it allows one to name the value that it provides to viewers. In this case, the message is that "if you deal with reality as it is, if you face your fears courageously, then—-though success is not guaranteed—-it is definitely achievable."

Stay tuned for the last post in this series, where we show that the art a person likes says a lot about them--and state why, especially with Amelie, it is crucial to ask that person for the reasons a particular work of art moved them so much.

1 comment:

  1. Just to clear something up that a couple of people mentioned to me off-line:

    I said in this post that the theme of Amelie was not that "one achieves happiness by doing good things for others."

    My thoughts on this haven't changed, but it's worth pointing out that the above is said while recognizing the scene where Amelie feels as light as air (and very happy) after helping Bretodeau.

    Amelie does think for a while that she will achieve happiness by helping others--and I agree that this scene clearly shows the emotional reward one gets sometimes just by doing something kind.

    Because many people love this scene, and consider random acts of kindness to be almost supremely important, I understand why this is so memorable and inspirational for many people.

    I just wouldn't define the film this way, because the entire plot isn't geared around it. (In fact, the plot contradicts the whole "doing good for others makes you happy" idea).