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The Cinematic Sensation that Was ‘Amélie’

The Movie that Changed Cinema—and Montmartre—in 2001

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(L-R) Savvy Crawford and Phillipa Soo in “Amélie, A New Musical.”

Photo by Joan Marcus

On April 25, 2001, global cinema changed forever, and a new era began in French cinema with the release of Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (called simply Amélie in the U.S., and the movie on which the new musical onstage at the Ahmanson Theatre through January 15, 2017 is based). Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet—who had previously directed a post-apocalyptic comedy and two science fiction movies (including Alien: Resurrection)—and written by Guillaume Laurant, from a story by Jeunet and Laurant, the film was an instant and wild hit. Four million people saw it in its first two months in theatres alone, and it had sold 7.5 million tickets and grossed over $40 million by the end of its run in its home country.

Its fans included President Jacques Chirac, who called watching the film at the Elysée Palace, where he hosted a special screening, “one of the best evenings of my life.” Prime Minister Lionel Jospin championed Amélie Poulain as justifying state support for the French film industry. French actress Audrey Tautou, who was cast in the title role with just a few feature credits under her belt, quickly became a recognizable celebrity. (Interestingly, the role had originally been written for the English actress Emily Watson).

But even as it raked in rave reviews and francs at the box office, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain was also courting controversy. Weeks after it was released, the 2001 Cannes Film Festival opened, showing five French films in competition, and seemingly snubbing Jeunet’s film. (Rumor had it that the movie was deemed “not serious.”) Redemption came quickly, however, when in September the movie (now titled, in English, Amélie of Montmartre) won the AGF People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, that festival’s most important award.

That fall, less than two months after 9/11, Amélie (again retitled) opened in the United States. Elvis Mitchell’s New York Times review called it “fabulous…a sugar rush of a movie”; Roger Ebert echoed that sentiment, calling the film “a delicious pastry…You see it, and later when you think about it, you smile.” America must have had a sweet tooth in that particular moment: Amélie grossed over $33 million, setting box office records for a French film and becoming one of the highest grossing foreign language films of all time. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography. In 2008, Entertainment Weekly named the film poster to its list of the top 25 film posters of the past 25 years. In 2010, the American Society of Cinematographers named Amélie the best-shot movie of the 2000s.

The effects of Amélie made it outside the doors of movie theatres and into the world of Montmartre, the Paris neighborhood where the story is set. The Café des Deux Moulins, where Amélie works in both the movie and stage versions, became a tourist attraction, as did the greengrocer where she shops. Montmartre has gentrified in the ensuing years, but guided Amélie tours continue to stop at the sites featured in the movie for fans who find themselves vacationing in Paris.

Luckily, Los Angeles fans of the movie can save themselves a plane ticket and a hotel—Montmartre and Amélie remain at the Ahmanson for a few more weeks

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