Blesok no. 33, July-August, 2003
Gallery Reviews

Amelie Poulain:
Saint, Waitress and Probably – a Woman
(an attempt for a feminist approach on the feature film Le Fabuleux Destin de Amelie Poulain)

Žarko Kujundžiski

    The author of the feature film – the Oscar nominee – Le Fabuleux Destin d' Amelie Poulain (The Unusual Destiny of Amelie Poulain), Jean-Pierre Jeneux, is one of the most recognizable French film directors (City of Lost Children, Delicatessen Store, House of Lost Children). The co-scenarist of the project is another French guy – Guillaume Lorain. So, the both authors are – men. That's why this feministic approach on the feature film The Unusual Destiny of Amelie Poulain has in sight, of course, the conclusions of the different tendencies within the frames of this method (radical feminism, anarchistic feminist critic, the genocritic i.e. critic that is interested in the feminine letter/writing – ecriture feminine, then – the analysis of the woman as a writer and of the woman as a reader, etc.), but this text's main obsession is the presenting way of the central female character in The Unusual Destiny of Amelie Poulain.

James Bond against Joan of Arc

    Putting the main characters' names in the film title – is often practice. Recently, we saw Jerry McGuire, Barry Lyndon, Billie Elliot, and Blade, Rambo, Rocky… What's characteristic for these titles? All those refer onto the male characters.
    Really, the case when the center of the film story, or the active principle of the story is the male character – is much more often case (even if his name isn't in the film title), especially in the action movies (the Die Hard and the James Bond serial) and in the thrillers (Seven, Usual Suspects, and the most famous exception is The Silence of the Lambs). In such case, the female characters are objectified (I wonder how Bond isn't sick of swinging partners like socks) or their semantic level is extremely reduced down to their physical existence, on their pure corporal elements – their body (I can't remember even one of the Bruce Willis' partners while he was “dying hard”, but I'm more than sure that none of them had rotten teeth or bent nose).

    Much less often in this feature film production (not to mention Latino TV serials), female characters are put as an equal partners to the male characters, on the story and on the narrative film function level (Sandra Bullock is “O.K.” in Miss Congeniality, for example, but only after she would left the gun under her pillow, after she'd put the high heals and the mini-skirt on – for men, she would become “a real woman”.

    Really, in the last recent years we witness numerous cases where the females carry the action and the plot, being central characters in the feature films, and they're allowed to be women of flesh and blood, of reason and emotion and of sense and sensibility. These “strong” women, or more precisely – “strong” female characters, besides the ones of certain (proto)biographic provenience (Evita, Hours, Frida, Joan of Arc), succeeded to gain the typically male tools – swords and guns (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and some of them even succeeded to gain the male's strongest weapon/tool (in the theory considered for one of the rare 100% male assets) – the language (Erin Brokovic).

    In the Macedonian cinematography – we can note one fascinating fact: there are few films (but it is a large number in percentage of the whole national film production) that put the female characters in the center of the film deed's attention (even in the film titles) – not only the very first Macedonian film Frosina, but also, there are Miss Stone, Three Girls Named Ana, Stand Up Straight Delfina, We are Cursed Irina, which explicitly position the woman as a center-pillar of the film narration. In opposite of the female characters that participate in the culture with their mental or physical potentials, abilities and qualities (Stand Up Straight Delfina), stand those who emerge from the typical patriarchal environment as in Frosina, where the female character is the “absent one” (E. Šeleva), namely “the dead center” of the action. In Miss Stone, not to forget that, even besides that Miss Stone is a missionary, she has her individual identity; but, we mustn't forget that she isn't a woman that origins from the Balkan context.

”A Sweet Little Parisien

    In opposite of the other female characters with a task to attack with their beauty and sex-appeal (typically female) and with force, words (characterized as a motherly characteristic), the character of Amelie Poulain (as many other things in this film) steps out of the norms, the stereotypes, and of the convention black & white understanding of things, or to be more accurate, Jeneux and Lorain deal with the combination of the stereotypes, or with their partial “estranging” (by the term used by the Russian formalists).
    That's why Amelie isn't “a sweet small Parisien” as she was mentioned in some critics for the film, but much more of an unusual French girl, atypical female character.

    Amelie Poulain doesn't attract (primarily) with her outer appearance – she doesn't have “boobs” like Pamela Anderson, nor “rear end” like Jennifer Lopez. But she does have a smile and a glance in her eyes that are more or less “fabulous” and a specific look and even more specific attitude and behavior.
    Unlike Frosina, for instance, a woman that comes out from a typical falocentric environment, Amelie lives in a family environment where the mother is the dominant person in the family, and Amelie and her father are in their shadow, leaving in the specific, mild matriarchate. Such non-dominance of the male characters in the social communities, i.e. marriages, can be seen in The Unusual Destiny of Amelie Poulain also at the parents of the grocery owner Colignon. His mother is the one who acts with verbal aggression, “shutting down” her husband. Also, Mr. Colignon is the one who remembers/recalls, he's the family's memory, while the mother is the one who writes down things, the one who rules with the language – that is completely opposite from the usual traditionalistic aspects. But anyway, there is immediate contrast: the husband has a “penetrating” profession – he “perforates” the tickets in the subway. The predictive manner in the parents' professions is noted at Amelie's family – the mother i a teacher, the father is a doctor (and commonly, the little girls “play” teachers and nurses, but the one who “puts the wood-stick in the patient's mouth is, of course – a man).

    But, exactly because of the professional orientation of Amelie's father, her right to educate herself is taken: at her first domestic health check out, she shivers at her heart because of the first male touch she ever had, so the father gets the diagnosis some kind of a heart disease (?). Amelie, because of her first experience of her “Other”(ity), of her female nature, looses one of the basic rights of every child – the education. There are no retrograde, patriarchal reasons that caused it, which, of course, isn't out of logic to be a factor in some of the contemporary Macedonian film.
    Normally, the mother-teacher, or the teacher-mother – gets on stage. But Amelie isn't very skilled with the language, so the education didn't went quite well for her. Her greatest joy is her fish, which, by the metonymical principle, faces the silence – again. But, because of the mother (untypical again), the fish is silenced by throwing in the river. In spite of it, Amelie doesn't loses herself, creating her own hyper-reality, her “own and personal soba” (V. Wolf) in the world of fantasy, her reality.

    Vuk Karadzic, when publishing his first and second miscellany of folk & ethnic songs Pesnarka (1814, 1815), divides this oral material in two groups: heroic, and female, namely epic and lyrical, or in the most general option: the prose and the poetry. The Unusual Destiny of Amelie Poulain, as a film, enters the constellation of this kind of division. The off voice, or namely – the film narrator, is a male voice. It is a dominant, superior, all-present and authorial, and he introduces Amelie to us in this film fiction. The Amelie herself is close to this narrator in many things, especially of that “female” type of discourse – her understanding of the world is very lyrical. She's a dreamer, incarnated imagination, in the clouds she sees – now a teddy bear, now a rabbit; she loves the little things in life, she enjoys the colors of Paris and the concentric circles in the water made by the frogs in the canal of St. Martin. She's a real lyrical nature.

    On the other hand, Amelie is an urban character; she comes from her father's home in the suburban area, to live in the center of the happenings – at Monmartre. She makes an exodus from the female's natural scheme, namely the familiarity with the nature in opposite of the culture, the “male's” civilization.
    In opposite of Amelie, the male characters in the film overtake the female characteristics. With female “performances” is, for instance – Nino, the man Amelie falls in love with, and who was never aggressive or violent, in opposite and in spite of his classmates in school. He also lives in his own lyrical world, he's a dreamer, just like Amelie, he's interested in the unusual and the bizarre, of the other side, of the world beyond, and for the ordinary people, even – of the bestial things, of the witchcraft (for instance, he records the unusual people's laughter, or he collects thrown photos from the photo-automats). He, although he works in a pornoteque with the striptease cabin (a firm example of the pornoglosic ambient), his attitude toward the female body and the nakedness is highly asexual, the nudity as itself has no meaning for him: it simply doesn't have any meaning for him.
    In all this, Amelie's courting fits perfectly, because her courting is far away from the manner known as “fem fatal” (as in the same-named film of Brian de Palma); she “enforces/provokes” the male to be interested in the “inner” things, not in the “outer” ones. She doesn't play the role of a sexual object or of the “harem phantasm” (S. Slapshak). She uses her intelligence, wisdom and her high cleverness of the mind. She turns the seducing into a game.

    The male accepts the “cat & mouse” game, the game of hide & seek, where the Amelie is a kind of frightened of her identity, as Siskus would say – the fear of one's own “Other”(ity), which “inhibits and frustrates” her, so she disguises herself behind other identities. Once he disguises herself in a typical male hero – Zorro, another time she takes the Audrey Hepburn, quoting her lines from the anthological Breakfast at Tiffany's. (the resemblance between Audrey Totu and Audrey Hepburn is almost unbelievable!)

The female Don Quixote

    For a long time (especially in the Renaissance) in the literature and the art, the female characters were simplified, and they were presented as she-Saints or as fallen females (by bodily lust or by something else like it), with the actual segregation: inhuman-superhuman being. Amelie starts the path to become a Saint, making good deeds around and helping people, making them happy.
    This missionary role she decides to take not by chance, but at the very day of the Mother Teresa's death (probably in the future she'll be canonized as Saint Teresa) and also near the death of Lady Diana (known and famous of her charity work). In the Catholic world that would be inevitably linked with the Saint Mary, the Mother of God. In one segment of the intextuality in The Unusual Destiny of Amelie Poulain, namely – actually, the “film in a film” segment, she would see herself (with a vision) as a “protector of the cast-out ones”, as a “contemporary Don Kihote”, whose goal is to redeem the humanity out of the world's misfortune.

    Amelie, as a woman, and as an “Other”(ity), realizes herself through the “Other” ones. She tries to help them, to make them happy: her landlord, the man to whom she revoked his childhood with the (long time hidden) 40-years old “memory box”, the helpless assistant in the grocery store, or the unrealized writer… Although Y. Kristeva claims that the woman is put out of the language and power, here, the Amelie's power can be seen in her ability to help the others. But it seems that she loses her powers when it comes to herself personally. In the moments of decision, she is inconsistent and labile, she's simply powerless. At the end, her destiny goes over to the hands of the men – Nino and the painter, which stimulates her decision. If there was a marriage forced upon Frosina, and if she was torn out of her destiny and put in the constant desire and permanent state of Longing for something that should yet to happen, in The Unusual Destiny of Amelie Poulain we have the fulfillment of Amelie's desire and longing, but she doesn't possess the “ male courage” to do it by herself. The infinite things sometimes become spookier than the finite ones, so her perpetual hiding, masking and hiding of her identity can provoke the inhibition and annulation of the same.

    This double, contrary and paradoxical picturing of the (female) character can be seen in a row of other things, also. At one hand, Amelie has a typical profession – a waitress – she serves the other ones (in “Two Mills” men are the majority guests), but on the other hand, there is something “sacred” in her character, although she isn't abstract, the carnal and other pleasures are very familiar to her. She isn't “ruled” by her father, she lefts the home very young, getting her “independence”. In spite of that, while Nino drives his moped, she makes cookies (I couldn't even imagine the more clichéd image of the patriarchal representation of women. The kitchen and the bedroom are the Reign of the woman, aren't they!?).

    This kind of approach in the forming of the characters is only the part of the art procedure of “estranging” the film material so one can “feel” the art aside from the “common” reality, and the other procedures are present in the unusual scene linkage and in the editing of the film – both on the semantic and on the structural level. Although the story is narrated by the mail voice in off – that voice is also inclined towards the unusual and the details, the narrator is “that strange and sensible eye that notices even the smallest details, for instance, how the glasses dance on one of the tables.
    The Amelie's father seems to take her mother's death even heavier than her, although Slapshak claims that “the dead hero belongs to the women that bath and dress him, that vigil over him and cherish him, preparing him for the funeral and moan upon him”. IN The Unusual Destiny of Amelie Poulain, the father is the one who totally unreasonably gets to the very bottom of the grief, and he's in the state of constant and permanent moaning.

    As an opposite of the man who always watches football as every real man does (castrating the little Amelie's desire to engage in photography), is the boring courtship of Georgette's follower, which haunts her constantly, the behavior unthinkable for a “macho” being, which is primarily an “experience tracker” (Bauman).
    The tendentious inconsistence, the junctions of the opposites (the limits and differentiations between the male and female characteristic common to the traditional imagology vanish in this film), as well as the vague shading of the characters in their (male or female) gender, can impress a kind of a dual presence of both genders and of mixing the male/female roles in every character equally – on a certain diegetic level.

    Since the first eye-encounter between Amelie and Nino – their mutual familiarity/predestination can be felt – quietly revealing the myth from Plato's Feast – about the division of the Third Gender (male-female), and the Two Halves in search one for another. But – that's completely different story now…

Translated by: Petar Volnarovski

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