Enchanted Search for the Heart of 'Amelie'

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A new breed of tourist has invaded the hilltop urban village of Montmartre here: the "Amelie" fan.

This particular species wandering the congested, winding streets has roots all over the world, especially in Europe and Japan. Its members have a common trait: They adore the movie "Amelie."

The story of their pilgrimage began last April with the release of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film, which is up for five Academy Awards this month, including best foreign language film.

Titled in French "The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain," it's about a sullen, lonely young waitress, played by Audrey Tautou, whose life turns upside down when she discovers a child's secret box hidden in her bathroom floor and goes looking for its owner, now an adult.

From that moment of discovery, Amelie also makes a most un-Parisian decision: She will dedicate herself to intervening, sometimes mischievously and intrusively, in people's lives to make them happy. The enchantment of this simple premise, which is presented with subtle, tender humor, is what's drawing devotees to the places where the film was shot.

"The ones who come here are looking for the joie de vivre that she left in their minds," says Monique Labbe, co-owner of the Cafe des Deux Moulins, the real-life establishment where much of the movie is set.

Labbe's family-run cafe is located at the corner of Lepic and Cauchois streets, a block from the fabled Moulin Rouge cabaret and below the steps of the Sacre-Coeur church. With its large copper bar, a few tables on the sidewalk and a cigarette counter, the Cafe des Deux Moulins--named after two nearby windmills that have survived urbanization--doesn't seem much different from the other cafes lining the sidewalks.

But a detail catches the eye: the big "Amelie" poster covering the back wall. The cafe, which is the heroine's workplace, has become an outpost of Amelie-mania.

In addition to celebrating Montmartre, "Amelie" created a style, a look and an atmosphere that have become a reference point for journalists, politicians and designers. It is slowly earning a place in the French cultural patrimony.

These days, the French press often describes joyful, lighthearted and happily naive situations as "la Amelie Poulain." The newspaper Liberation recently labeled designer Jean-Paul Gaultier's summer 2002 collection "a mix of Amelie Poulain and French cancan."

Other fashion critics noted the resemblance to Tautou of the first model to hit the catwalk and Gaultier's homage to the cabarets and plazas of postwar Montmartre. Radio and television shows frequently sample Yann Tiersen's soundtrack, which has sold 2.5 million copies.

And politicians of diverse ideologies have praised "Amelie's" spirit of friendship and kindness, saying they wish the French would emulate the movie's ideals.

"France should be softer.... We need more tolerance, more fraternity, a bit like the France of Amelie Poulain," said Francois Fillon, regional leader of President Jacques Chirac's conservative party, in a speech last year.

Meanwhile, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, a Socialist, honored "Amelie's" director and producer with a medal Wednesday. The mayor hailed "a work that celebrates Paris with all the city's inner humanity, energy, poetry and joy of living."

Even Chirac held a private screening of "Amelie" at his elegant official residence, the Palais de l'Elysee, attended by director Jeunet ("Alien: Resurrection") and actress Tautou.

In some ways, Amelie-mania has been even more pronounced in Japan. But it has been based more on commerce than poetry, warmth or the character's benevolence. The Japanese love Amelie's clothes, bed, bathroom and her apartment furnishings in general. Japanese clothing chains have produced a line of fashionable accessories such as pins, T-shirts and good-luck charms. Japanese travel agencies also offer special "Amelie" packages that include tours of Montmartre and the movie locations.

It has been a long time since a French comedy combined spectacular critical and commercial success at home and abroad. The film has been seen by more than 8 million people in France and 17 million elsewhere.

"Amelie" is set in 1997, but it creates a dreamlike Paris that is not really Paris. There are no traffic jams, noise or pollution in this vision of Montmartre as it might have looked half a century ago. The soundtrack, dominated by the melancholic accordion rhythms of postwar Paris, adds to an alchemy that freezes the story in the past.

"'Amelie' is the Montmartre of the 1960s, where grass grew on the sidewalks because there was not a lot of traffic," says Alain Gauthier, a former Montmartre resident shopping at Chez Ali, a grocery store that figures prominently in the film. "You can tell from the story that it's happening now, but it has a look from the old days."

That too helps explain why "Amelie" immediately struck a chord among the French, and particularly Parisians, who admit they tend to be dour and reserved.

"There is no sex, no violence or bad words," says cafe proprietor Labbe. "I think people need this."

Since the movie's release, Labbe has welcomed an onslaught of tourists and journalists. Business has boomed. The managers of other coffee shops and restaurants crammed into Montmartre's narrow streets are expressing envy and irritation at all the tourists asking directions to the Deux Moulins, where Jeunet's crew spent three weeks shooting in 2000.

"Each time the movie comes out somewhere in the world, we see the tourists from that country arriving shortly afterward," Labbe says.

Montmartre is not only crowds, tourists, bars and cars. It also has quiet alleys, deserted squares, look-alike cul-de-sacs and narrow steps bathed in sun or shadow. At the corner of a silent, steep little street, you end up at the grocery Chez Ali.

Although the store is only two blocks from the Place Pigalle, infamous for prostitution and tawdry night life, Chez Ali occupies a calm residential corner. It was chosen by Jeunet to house the only really mean character in the story: Monsieur Collignon, the grocer.

Ali Mdoughy, 46, the manager of the real store, is nothing like the cold and mocking Collignon.

"The Japanese tourists have the best time when they come here," he explains in a Moroccan accent. "I show them the photo album I put together from the shooting with all the actors."

Mdoughy is now a star in his neighborhood. Visitors regularly question him about Tautou, Jamel Debbouze, who plays the grocer's gentle assistant, and the other actors. They inquire if he inspired the character of Collignon. He has given interviews to an assortment of foreign journalists.

"I'm like the garden gnome in the movie," he jokes. "I'm traveling all around the globe."

After the two-week visit of the film crew, Mdoughy decided to keep his place almost as the director decorated it. He preserved the green facade, the Maison Collignon sign and the layout. His outdoor stall has become more refined than that of an average local grocery. The produce is elegantly presented in wicker baskets, decorated with plastic flowers and colorful fake fruit.

Asked how the movie has changed his life, Mdoughy replies softly: "It's like a flame, and I don't want it to go out."

The movie's good cheer also changed the mood of the neighborhood, Mdoughy says.

"I felt the place was losing its nostalgia, and the movie gave it a new breath," he says. "It got people closer to each other. It's quite magical, a happiness that invaded Montmartre."

Back in the crowded and agitated Rue Lepic, Madame Labbe is sterner and more skeptical.

"The movie leaves a good feeling, that's for sure," she says. "But it is in no way the reality. People haven't changed."

That's sad news for Amelie fans crossing through the screen into the real Paris. Around noon on a recent Friday, Romain Clarte, 25, was taking pictures of the grocery. An aspiring French screenwriter who has seen "Amelie" four times, he said he had taken advantage of a quick business trip to Paris to visit the real-life movie set.

"I'm not only here for 'Amelie,' but as I was in Paris I thought it'd be a good idea to come and see this place," he said. As much as he liked the film, however, he said he saw little change in the aggressive and unfriendly manner of many Parisian drivers and pedestrians.

Other than in Japan, Jeunet has resisted attempts to further commercialize the "Amelie" phenomenon. You won't find "Amelie" T-shirts, key chains or hats at souvenir shops in Montmartre. The director rejected a proposed "Amelie" TV series offered by U.S. producers as well as a request from the French Health Ministry to use the title character in an informational campaign about abortion.

Early this month, the director collected a Cesar award, the French equivalent of the Academy Award, for best film. That added to a string of honors for "Amelie," including Spain's Goya for best European film and prizes from film festivals in Berlin, Toronto and elsewhere.

In Montmartre, the owner of Chez Ali aspires to more modest glory. Mdoughy is working on ideas for a chocolate and an ice cream to be named after Amelie.

"I need to discuss this with Monsieur Jeunet," the grocer explains. "But right now he is busy with the Oscars."

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 13, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction "Amelie"--The credit for a photo of Cafe des Deux Moulins in Southern California Living on Tuesday was incorrect. It was taken for The Times by Carmen Mendez.
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