2010s, Historical, Romance

Jane Eyre (2011)



Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga

By Roderick Heath

Charlotte Brontë’s classic 1847 novel has, unlike her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights, thus far largely resisted attempts by filmmakers to transpose its multifaceted charms and subterranean perversities into worthy cinema. Whereas Wuthering Heights has received such memorable, sharply contrasting and complementary adaptations from the likes of William Wyler, Luis Buñuel, Jacques Rivette, and Kiju Yoshida, versions of Jane Eyre have tended to be disappointing and dryly handled. Even the seemingly perfectly cast 1944 version directed by Robert Stephenson, starring Joan Fontaine as Jane and Orson Welles as Rochester, doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. Perhaps this is because there’s something defiant about the novel, which possesses elements of, and yet does not give itself over to, the same hallucinogenic romance-noir atmosphere of Wuthering Heights, whilst balancing elements of reportage-like exposure and moral symbolism within its own insistently dialectic structure: it’s the work of someone in constant interior argument with herself.


Jane, Brontë’s heroine, is one of the best ever put on paper, a fiercely self-contained young woman who operates according to her own moral compass regardless of whether the world is in accord. The novel’s finale both fulfills and subverts its own gothic-romantic reflexes in a peculiar series of anticlimaxes with curious sadomasochistic overtones. The promise of another film version hardly set the world on fire, and yet this new adaptation struck me as by far the best stab at Classics Illustrated cinema in several years. It’s surprisingly well-cast, with two of the best up-and-coming actors in the business, and equally well-directed by the California-born Fukunaga, who had previously helmed the admired Sin Nombre (2009). Fukunaga seemingly made a great leap in subject matter in moving from contemporary third-world experience to well-thumbed library shelf filler, and yet perhaps not so great after all.


Part of the reason why Fukunaga’s film works better than other adaptations is because he understands the dialectic nature of the story. He pitches his adaptation, consequently, both on a level of sharply composed realism, with an emphasis on physical environs and extremes, which helps give back to the material a grounding in immediacy, whilst allowing hints of stylisation, to evoke the psychological and expressionistic elements of the novel, to come forth without being hoary. The period rural England glimpsed in the opening scenes practically conjures a sensation of wind chill and ice burn as Jane (Mia Wasikowska) flees from Thornfield Hall into the embrace of a rural landscape that offers no sustenance to the outcast. The underlying paranoia of so many of the “classic” novels of the early 19th century is of the fate of the social castaway in a civilised land completely inimical to multiple forms of outsider; it’s easy to miss the often-shouted note of social protest in adapting such works. This Jane Eyre restores some of the immediacy and anger sucked out of most such adaptations through the figure of Jane, who tries to keep a grip on her Christian charity and also her outspoken honesty in circumstances where people try to subordinate one and destroy the other.


You can also see the influence on such writing looping back to its roots through the Harry Potter stories in the opening scenes in which Jane is assaulted by her spoilt cousin and, when she sticks up for herself, is exiled to the remote and gloomy Red Room, where she freaks out so intensely, believing the stories hurled at her by vengeful adults about ghosts and spectres, that she knocks herself out cold in beating at the door. The vision of Jane as someone driven by such an intense sense of justice and survival instinct that she’s almost self-destructive comes into immediate focus. This sits alongside the observation that her grim childhood (Amelia Clarkson as young Jane), which also includes being sent to a death camp in the guise of a school where girls, including her best friend Helen Burns (Freya Parks), expire from pneumonia in the parsimonious climes, actually arms her for future travails with an uncommon rigour, a fact she senses and forgives.


Fukunaga attempts artfully, though not entirely successfully, to downplay the novel’s loss of momentum in its long third act, when Jane finds aid and shelter with rural pastor St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters Diana and Mary (Holliday Grainger and Tamzin Merchant), by commencing with this plot point and using the licence of cinema to both disperse these scenes and retain their narrative meaning—Jane’s capacity for gratitude and perseverance, the way St. John subtly shows up the lacks of a more seemingly spiritual type of man as petty and narrow. It also allows Fukunaga to explicate Jane’s childhood and early experiences in fragmented flashbacks, allowing him to jump between periods without laboured narrative grammar, particularly inspired in one moment that reduces years of abuse to a single crack of a cane against her back. Jane is thus exiled when she falls afoul of her spiteful aunt, Mrs. Reed (an unusually cast Sally Hawkins), whose feelings of familial responsibility towards kin are easily discounted in the face of a girl who insistently mirrors back a lack of charity and decency. Jane survives her education and adolescence and takes the post of governess at Thornfield to school the French-speaking, rather daffy young Adèle (Romy Settbon Moor), and encounters ‘umble ‘ousekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (a nicely subdued Judi Dench) and her personal dark marauder riding out of the mist, Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender).


Wasikowska, with an uncommon capacity to seem shrinkingly plain and luminescently beautiful from shot to shot, emphasises Jane’s innate decency with an edge of sullen, clipped, subtle resentment she tries not to let dominate her personality and hinted in the way she gives Jane a Midlands accent, rather than the “received pronunciation” for proper, educated English. Rochester is a difficult part to play, easy to push too far towards monstrous Byronic cliché or expose as a himbo fantasy. But Fassbender tackles the character with a blend of harshly honest force and pained discomfort within his own skin, with a faint edge of trapped bohemian energy and the intense hate of lies clashing with his beholdenness to a man who perpetuates one enormous lie to secure his future happiness. He’s both prisoner and driver of the steely rivets holding together patriarchal, conformity-driven Christian England that Fukunaga goes on to realise with effectively eerie scenes; Jane becomes witness to the manifestations of Rochester’s dark secret, the Minotaur at the heart of his personal labyrinth, as she tends injured Mason (Harry Lloyd). Hearing menacing knocks and windy whistling in a splendidly paranoid scene, Jane rides out the night with fortitude, remindful that, amongst other things, Brontë bridged a gap between Gothic and psychological fiction.


A similarly strong scene with a fine control of point of view comes earlier when Jane is invited to join Rochester’s toff friends, including his designated paramour Blanche Ingram (an underutilised Imogen Poots), and sits ignored and shell-like in company that cares not a jot for her, dismissing governesses as “detestable incubi … hysterics … degenerates.” Jane leaves, pursued only by the man attracted to her precisely because she sits so far outside the whimsical world. Fukunaga is nicely aware of the importance of physical contact in a world where it’s verboten in all but the most profoundly private moments. The scene of Jane’s unexpected appearance causing Rochester and his horse to take a violent fall. The sight of the squealing animal and the bellowing man tethered in toppled, flurrying alarm encapsulates everything dark and ferocious about the male sexuality Jane knows nothing of and yet gravitates to with inevitable, physical compulsion: Fukunaga then extracts a deeply sensuous feel from a moment as simple as Jane leaning her face against Rochester’s leg much later when he’s mounted on his horse, and at the end when she takes his hand when he’s been blinded, both moments alive with the profundity of human touching human. Such sensuousness inhabits other scenes where it’s less expected, as when young Jane and Helen share a bed, providing both with emotional and physical warmth. There’s an admirable sense of awkward, fearsome determination when Jane bitterly remonstrates Mrs. Reed before being cast out of her life, and when Rochester leads Jane to their ill-fated wedding with a sense of a threat as yet undefined. Their subsequent confrontation by Rochester’s lunatic wife Bertha Mason (Valentina Cervi) elides her pathetic beauty and captures with subtle framings the humiliation and horror transfixing the undeserving Jane.


If anything finally limits this Jane Eyre’s success, it is that for all its casting and stylistic strength, it’s still an essentially conservative and modestly aimed adaptation, straining at the limits of the tasteful period film but also conceding to them. The screenplay by Moira Buffini, who wrote Tamara Drewe (2010), Stephen Frears’ amusing riff on Far from the Madding Crowd, is, in spite of the reorganising of the narrative, still anchored to studious novelistic progression and point of view, to the extent that it even avoids portraying the climactic conflagration that destroys Thornfield. There’s a devilish perfection in Bertha’s auto-da-fé destruction of the entire infrastructure of the English country order she’s been sitting within like an alien, spidery presence, which deserves filming. This omission robs the tale of its fiery apocalyptic grandeur, obvious even in the second person on the page, and so that the film feels curiously lacking in a climax: it’s not full-blooded in a way that the most bold and aggressively cinematic adaptations visibly fight to achieve in different fashions.


We tend to associate classic novels with the classic cinema styles that inflated them like fragments of myth, for example, David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946). Yet Fukunaga’s mise-en-scène offers a sinuous, deceptive kind of expressionism, with its twinning poles of the frantic, handheld, opening shot and a sense of vertiginous plunging into the unknown, and the equally woozy, but tonally opposite, scene in which his camera and edits spin and jump lithely as Rochester and Jane glance off each other in a teasing game of attraction and repulsion and attraction again in a garden that erupts to life as if spring is coming only in response to their unleashed passion. Jane Eyre the novel is hardly a work of interior monologue and deep psychological investigation, and yet it is closely tethered to Jane’s inner life and her accounting of her thought processes, explaining both her severe temptation to accept Rochester’s proposal that they live in sin and the power of her determination to resist when it’s deeply against the grain of her personal sense of integrity.


This sort of stuff is hard to get across on screen and part of what tripped up earlier adaptations, which endlessly stalled waiting for the moment when Rochester and Jane kiss. But Fukunaga’s relative success relies on his careful camerawork and on Wasikowska’s and Fassbender’s capacity to depict warring internal impulses in gesture and speak in ways that convey several layers of meaning. Fukunaga seems determined to tell this story as if it’s never been told before, with a clear-eyed sense of where to stress the narrative beats, which is uncommon in a lot of modern adaptations. Jane Eyre is a good yarn, and he’s not afraid to let it flow with a natural confidence that avoids the academic or drearily faithful adaptation of a TV miniseries. There’s something a little unpredictable about this Jane Eyre, even if the ending is never in doubt.

1950s, 2000s, Romance

Brief Encounter (1945) / (500) Days of Summer (2009)

Directors: David Lean ; Marc Webb

By Roderick Heath

Thanks to my occasional habit of shoving DVDs into the player almost at random while vaguely following the whims of my interests, every now and then I finish up watching movies that seem to comment on each other. I had just such an experience when I viewed within a few hours of each another a stone-cold classic of romantic cinema and a much more recent success that pointedly declares itself to be “not a love story.” Brief Encounter and (500) Days of Summer set my mind to working about how both human mores and cinematic styles had altered in the 65 years that separate the two films.

Brief Encounter has become iconic not only as a brilliantly orchestrated piece of dramaturgy and cinema, but also as a depiction of emotional stoicism of a brand that is more than passé to many today—it’s downright alien. Joe Wright showed Brief Encounter to the cast of Atonement to school them in undemonstrative styles of anguish. Of course, such frames of reference are reductive, and Brief Encounter isn’t quite so stiff-upper-lip as it’s often portrayed, though it’s hard to doubt it does describe with some authenticity the psyche of the WWII era, when individual passions were continually, forcibly channelled into greater issues and overwhelming responsibilities. By contrast, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the hero of (500) Days of Summer, who makes an auto-da-fé out of disappointment and romantic frustration, is encouraged by his boss Vance (Clark Gregg) to channel his moping into composing messages of condolence for greeting cards.

The chief similarity of Brief Encounter and (500) Days is that they are about romances that end badly and in such a way as to reflects contemporaneous principles. The adulterous flirtation of Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), and the determinedly ill-defined whatever between Tom and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) leave each pair battered, humiliated, and near-suicidal. The differences are, of course, manifold: Laura is married, bordering on middle-age, with two children and an agreeable homebody of a husband (Cyril Raymond); her partner in short-lived passion, Alec, likewise is married to a “small, dark, delicate” woman. Tom is still fairly young, an architect by training who’s been hiding out for some reason working for the greeting card company where Summer comes to work as Vance’s personal assistant. Summer’s quirky, lovable, into The Smiths, possessing an inexplicable admiration for Ringo Starr, prone to retro fashions, and altogether exquisitely designed to plug into the fantasies of every pining pseudo-hip male aged 16-42 in the audience. Casting Deschanel, hot indie-quirk girl über alles, merely cements the impression. Her scenes with Tom, of finding romance through playful skips about an Ikea store and good karaoke singing, are carefully designed to make the lovelorn gnaw on the seat.

Tom’s hunt is for the girl who will complete his life, indeed give meaning to it, in a workaday world where he’s clearly wasting his better potential. Likewise, Alec and Laura’s electric attraction presents a rose of brilliance amidst the drab, utterly worn-out, wartime English landscape it describes with insidious accuracy, one they are condemned to express through carefully chosen words and a couple of kisses that will not be seen to rupture the surface givens of their lives. The directness of their verbal expressions, contradicted by the rigidity (shading into hysteria) of their behaviour, is in exact counterpoint to the messy, indistinct, unnamed emotions that Summer prefers. Belying her naturally imbued gravitational force as an attractive female, Summer is a far more withdrawn, tentative personality than Tom. She is wary of relationships after her parents’ divorce left her deeply wounded as a girl and detests the kind of clarity Tom eventually demands in their relationship—a clarity that comes all too naturally to Alec and Laura, if also painfully.

The two films, then, capture an exact contradiction in evolving romantic relations: Brief Encounter describes a world dominated by a rigid ethical system in which adulterous passion, even if accidental, is impossible and doomed to be unconsummated. (500) Days of Summer is about an age liberated enough to remove the necessity for clandestine displays of emotion but, ironically, leaving the lovers mildly terrified not of other people, but rather of each other. Both situations eat up the participants when they realise they can go no further. Summer begins to spurn Tom when he gets into a fight with an obnoxious yuppie who tries to chat her up, and insults him, bewildered and frigid after a spectacle of intense irrational emotion. Alec and Laura curtail their romance when a chance for sex in the flat of a friend of Alec’s is derailed when that friend (Valentine Dyall) returns unexpectedly, shaking Laura to her core as she perceives her crumbling values.

Somehow, the world of Brief Encounter, even though it’s an older one with many a dated detail, seems far more real than the polished world of (500) Days of Summer, where everything retains a crisp sheen of contemporary rom-com buoyancy even when trying to describe deep emotional pain. For instance, when Tom quits his job in a stew of resentment and anguish, his following spell of unemployment seems detached from any pressing financial needs except when communicated in the glibbest of fashions. Brief Encounter, on the other hand, delights in a detailed world of train timetables, stale sandwiches, annoying acquaintances, borrowed cars and flats, and all the immediate, tactile details of life.

The films also accord with ironic juxtapositions of the ideal and reality, particularly in how both couples share pop culture tropes that both define and offset their lives. (500) Days’ best scenes are pastiches that deliberately distort reality to fit into movie tropes whilst making the audience conscious of this, like when Tom, ebullient after having slept with Summer for the first time, struts through the park, the world turned into his own private movie musical, and Han Solo beams back at him from a mirror; later, when he watches arty foreign films, he projects himself into them as miserable protagonist. In Brief Encounter, Alec and Laura are amused by an advertisement for a movie called Flames of Passion, which they later see and find awful, replete with the amusing clichés of moviemaking—rampaging natives and elephants— that belittle the everyday reality of its characters. (500) Days makes more of a show of the irony in a sequence that presents Tom’s to-be-dashed hopes of reunion with Summer in split-screen with his imagined anticipations. There’s also a similar friction, which Tom rebels against, in the platitudinous art of greeting cards, which he finally condemns as bullshit.

Both films take a nonlinear, retrospective, post-mortem approach: Laura, whilst sitting in her living room with her husband, imagines she is explaining the sordid tale to him: the illicit couple’s forlorn appearance when happened upon by an acquaintance at the outset is finally explained when the narrative returns to the moment. (500) Days toggles back and forth through the course of the titular days with a counter flashing on screen, offering telling juxtapositions, such as a scene of Tom making a failed joke for Summer’s benefit, then explaining what he was trying for by winding back to when the same gags cracked her up. In both films, this look-back-in-torpor device is used for subtle reassurance, identifying the romance as being in the past, something recalled and informed by shadings of perception. Tonally, however, the films are a great distance apart. Brief Encounter aims for, and hits, a kind of everyday tragedy, whereas (500) Days is much more blithe, finding humour in Tom’s sadsackery and defusing emotional power with jokey discursions that constantly nudge the ribs.

What makes (500) Days relatively fresh and occasionally acute in its outlook is its efforts to confront and analyse a modern tendency to emotional dissociation and detestation for the familiar structures of male-female relations, especially in essaying this theme through a female avatar (“Shit, you’re a guy!” Tom’s friend McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend) exclaims when he hears Summer’s philosophy of anti-love) in contrast with an ardent young man who believes in romantic fate getting his heart handed to him on a plate. The trouble is, the film itself plays a game much like its heroine, stating rather than delving, skipping around any direct confrontation with emotional fractures.

Summer herself was described by one magazine as a memorable villain, and though that’s a bit much, there’s an element of truth in that assessment. (500) Days commences with a gag title (“Note: the following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Especially you, Jenny Beckman. Bitch.”) that pretends to lay a comic misogyny on the table, but then proceeds to explore a not-quite-so-comic misogyny in the finale. Summer, who has married after falling head over heels, and Tom have essentially changed places in their attitude to love, a glib cop-out from acknowledging the fact that Summer is, deep down, a very obnoxious person and Tom is a childish fool. “Other things matter too,” Laura retorts to Alec’s proposal that their love is all that matters: “Self respect, manners, and decency!” Summer and Tom very rarely display any of those qualities.

Of course, the distance between Brief Encounter and (500) Days of Summer isn’t just one of tone and era. Brief Encounter was a tremendously original film when it was released, its ironic contrasts and low-key, realistic approach to screen romance vibrant, and its careful use of a specific piece of preexisting music—Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2—laid groundwork for the kind of integrated use of such music which many a later film, including (500) Days, indulge aplenty. It is a near-perfect film, only blemished by some of screenwriter Noel Coward’s too-noble-for-belief dialogue in occasions. Still, Lean and Coward’s complementary gifts were in near-perfect tune in this film. (500) Days, for its part, is often imitative of other recent movies, parlaying fragments of Woody Allen and Amelie, amongst many others, to gussy up its by-the-book efforts to be eccentric: Tom’s scenes with his two male buddies McKenzie and Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler) and his precocious, advice-giving, vodka-prescribing younger sister (Chloë Grace Moretz) are straight Sundance 101. If Brief Encounter created a new formula, (500) Days extends formula but slightly.

2000s, Foreign, French cinema, Romance

Amélie (2001)

Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain


Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

By Roderick Heath

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film Amélie remains the highest-grossing French film of all time and a movie that pierced the cultural awareness of the English-speaking world as very few recent foreign-language films have managed. It was, and is still, regarded as a “feel-good” film par excellence, a label that is as often used as a pejorative as it is in praise, with some at the time of its release even stating that the film ran into trouble with some French critics because it courted that designation. Whether or not Amélie is simply a movie designed to elicit cheer in an audience demands we actually ask what, generically or even commercially speaking, a feel-good movie is and whether or not a feel-good film is necessarily simple. Because Amélie is surely not a simple or simplistic film, either stylistically or dramatically, in portraying a heroine pursuing happiness not only for herself, but also the people she may or may not know.


Geoffrey Mcnab, writing for The Independent newspaper, listed 25 feel-good films, including Saturday Night Fever (1977) for “mixing blue-collar realism with feel-good escapism.” The word “escapism” is particularly important, because it implies a removal from the actualities of life. Yet, many of the films Mcnab lists take a distinctive, real-world setting and face troubling facts of life, which suggests the feel-good template demands looking at those actualities, as painful as they can be, before providing idyllic relief and fulfillment. In Amélie, the shadows of depression, sexual frustration, jealousy, physical frailty, and the possibility of becoming entrapped by despair and rejection lurk as vividly for its fantasist heroine as for the people in whose lives she tries to providentially intervene. Whilst the film often seems to bend arcs of probability in flagrantly improbable directions, its grounding in immediate and troubling situations is consistent.


Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) becomes a kind of performance artist specialising in making feel-good movies out of the lives of the people she knows. She arranges unlikely romances, conjures acts of moral reward and reprisal, falsifies great coincidences of fate, and tries to uplift and inspire hope in even the most isolated and forlorn of folk, all flourishes that can be associated with the ideal of entertaining films. She tries to step back from her actions, to maintain an almost godlike distance, and leave the recipients of her good deeds to bask in the glories of chance and fate that have benefited them. The concept of providence, of things that are meant to be, perhaps underlies some assumptions associated with the feel-good film, which seek to assure that things will indeed be alright, as if intended so. Mcnab’s article mentions Slumdog Millionaire (2008), in which small quirks of fate gave its hero the correct answers for a game show, until he is forced in the very last question to rely entirely on chance, and again wins: fate is quite literally on his side, but not in any fashion that is acknowledged by the passive heroes or presented with any irony by the filmmakers. In Mcnab’s top pick, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey (James Stewart) is resuscitated by his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers). In Amélie, when the heroine arranges for Dominique Bretodeau (Maurice Bénichou) to rediscover his childhood trinkets, Bretodeau believes his guardian angel must have arranged it. Amélie casts herself in the role of magical sprite returning to people their lost childhoods and lovers, a one-woman conqueror of the vagaries of chance and fate.


Simultaneously, Jeunet’s filming presents a series of ironic discrepancies that reflect not only Amélie’s assumptions, imaginings, and desires, but also the film’s own purpose, beginning with the fact that filmmaking itself announces its godlike authority. Jeunet utilises an omniscient narrator (André Dussollier) and a flagrantly showy editing and photographic style that willfully digresses and explicates matters far removed from Amélie’s immediate perception, offering at will climatic details, deeply withheld personal fantasies, and characters’ memories. The narrator, and the director driving the movie, lay out with loopy concision those vagaries of happenstance Amélie battles, from offering up such details as the suicidal Canadian woman who claims her mother’s (Lorella Cravotta) life, to tracing the converging paths of various protagonists, to fateful moments and a series of what Jeunet called “positive and magical images.”

The fastidiousness with which the film outlines such twists of serendipity constantly confirms their improbability. Jeunet had utilised such narrative ploys before in his two feature collaborations with Marc Caro, Delicatessen (1991) and Cité des enfants perdus (1995), especially in a sequence in the latter film in which the central protagonists’ lives are saved by the intervention of coinciding events that tie together mice, strippers, and an ocean liner. Such storytelling dazzles with its invention, but also signals the directors’ knowing viewpoint by not merely contriving a happy ending, but offering the most contrived one possible. In Amélie, Jeunet deliberately dangles the threat inherent in chance, before then corralling the story toward a given end, much as Amélie conjures a series of absurd events that might have transpired to prevent her prospective boyfriend from making a rendezvous, in indicating how difficult getting from Point A to Point B in a world of infinite possibility can be.


Amélie’s own transformative imagination, which imbues everything about her with a visionary potential, is matched by Jeunet’s employment of CGI techniques to conjure an idealised, graffiti-free, nostalgically perfect Montmartre. When Amélie properly becomes a kind of filmmaker, recording fragments of wonder from the television for the benefit of the frail recluse Dufayel (Serge Merlin) the “Glass Man,” she edits together fragments of reality—horses running with cyclists, tap-dancing peg-legs—that evoke how often the world slips its own limits of credulity. Amélie, and the film around her, draw attention to the possibility of orchestrating chaos, and the enormous varieties of existence on Earth. As Amélie discovers, however, life does not obey all that she demands of it, and Jeunet refuses to suggest everything is correctable. The romance she helps stoke between hypochondriac tobacconist Georgette (Isabelle Nanty) and pathologically jealous café regular Joseph (Dominique Pinon) sees a brief interlude of comically intense romance soon give way to familiar patterns of behaviour; likewise, Amélie finds few of her interventions have immediate transformative impact.


Amélie herself, daughter to “a neurotic and an iceberg,” is, under her elfin bob, repressed—sexually and emotionally incapacitated and unable to engage directly with the world. She and Dufayel explore her ambiguities and faults through a stand-in, a figure in Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” Dufayel paints over and over, who is defined by the fact her face is partially hidden by a glass. Hipolito (Artus de Penguern), the film’s only, actual designated artist, is a commercial failure who claims: “I love the word ‘fail.’ Failure is human destiny.” Hipolito’s creed throws into relief both Amélie’s dedication and her shortcomings. The best she can hope for is to offer moments of wonder for people, stimulating them through totemistic acts that are open-ended in their possibilities. As Amélie becomes a variety of artist, the film reproduces cultural tropes and popular and celebratory art constantly in a cornucopia of references: Impressionist painting, blues music (Sister Rosetta Tharp), French chanson (Édith Piaf), masked heroes (Amélie imagines herself as Zorro), Don Quixote, Looney Tunes cartoons, Citizen Kane (Amélie’s imagined obituary newsreel), and Soviet propaganda films. In one scene, Amélie watches Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1961), which Jeunet’s directorial technique mimicks, particularly the fastidious voiceover in Jules et Jim, as well as the editing style and alternating emotions of its predecessor in Truffaut’s canon, Shoot the Piano Player (1960).


Jeunet’s structure thusly encompasses a vast array of cultural references not dissimilar to the way the apartment building in Delicatessan housed an array of classic French eccentrics. Dufayel’s self-isolation evokes both the works and lives of French Impressionists: he worships Renoir and suffers from a disease similar to that from which Toulouse-Lautrec suffered. His hermetic universe, shaky and brittle, is also repetitive and assailed, and cannot long countenance the intrusion of the garrulous, put-upon Lucien (Jamel Debbouze) and his less elevated references. “Lady Di! Lady Di!” Dufayel mocks him, before declaring: “Renoir!” Dufayel’s fixation with the glories of the past is both intensive and helpful and yet also as closeted and vulnerable as he is. He only uses his video camera to tell the time, until Amélie conjures for him more expansive visions. She doesn’t draw him away from his obsessions, but she does broaden his world. Likewise, his singular meditations hand Amélie vital metaphors for understanding herself. The necessity of engaging with life in any fashion as a creative act, not as success or failure but as engagement, is continually reasserted.


In the film’s most important plot arc, Amélie engages in a romance with Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz) that is expressed through those fragments of the world with which both of them are obsessed, possessing as they do very similar sensibilities, but radically different attitudes. Where Amélie as a child was lonely, Nino was harassed. Where Amélie plays god, looking down on the world from rooftops, Nino is happy to make fetishes of the traces left by everyday human actions—footprints and torn-up railway station photographs, rolling on the dirty floor in his attempts to retrieve them. Amélie expresses herself in do-gooding, Nino does so in dressing as a fun fair ghoul and scaring people. Amélie, a waitress, is scared of and unfulfilled by intimacy, whilst Nino works in a porn store, scared of and unfulfilled by intimacy. Their opposing traits nonetheless revolve around a shared sense of the world both as friendly—Nino is as beloved as a hopeless romantic and weirdo by his friends as Amélie is by hers—and alienating, something that can only be safely approached from the outside through its detritus and busted hearts.


Nino, and through him Amélie, who recovers his scrapbook, had developed a fascination for a bald, unknown man whose pictures he regularly recovered from the photography booths. This man becomes emblematic of the vast mystery of life both Nino is trying to perceive and Amélie is trying to master. In the end, only she can lead Nino to the simple realisation that the mystery man is the repairman for the photography booths. Amélie engages Nino’s fascination for a kind of semaphore of attraction that manifests through recapitulating the substance of things. And yet Dufayel continually prods Amélie to remember that she can only get what she wants by finally leaving her cocoon of fancy and taking the risk of having her heart busted. In the very opening, Amélie is conceived at the same moment one man scratches the name of his deceased best friend from his address book, and Amélie’s “destiny” is set in play by the death of Princess Diana. Jeunet presents and represents life as being filled with ellipses and imperfect mirrors, and the possibility of one’s heart dying long before one’s body looms underneath Amélie’s antics.


Such are the ways in which Jeunet complicates a nominally blithe tale of a waifish Samaritan who finds true love and “the pleasurable side of life,” as he called it. With a different attitude in screenplay and direction, Amélie and Nino could be portrayed as sad and pathetic types, and yet Jeunet reveals the world through their innocent, but not foolish, eyes. Amélie’s dedication to adding to the happiness of the lives of others confirms not only personal, but communal love as an apex of happiness. The narrative attempts not simply to inspire happiness, but to ask what a pursuit of happiness may involve, proposing finally that whilst romantic companionship is the summit of Amélie’s ambitions, that companionship is inextricably linked with her outsider, observational, artistic nature. Amélie’s actions ennoble not only herself but also her corner of the universe, whilst also giving her the tools to perceive her future mate who would otherwise remain completely invisible. Fate is, finally, on Amélie’s side, too.


If Truffaut’s Jules et Jim is “tragic” and Amélie is “feel-good,” Jeunet’s self-conscious flourishes confirm it as a consciously enforced choice—portraying the reality of alienation and frustrated desire as well the transformative capacity of art, love, and communal relationship. Whilst one may feel good at the end of Amélie, its breadth of offered life is both polished with finesse and multitudinous, the result of which confirms that part of achieving happiness is to face down what threatens to destroy us.

1980s, Romance

Pretty in Pink (1986)


Director: Howard Deutch

By Roderick Heath

The death of Michael Jackson and John Hughes within a few weeks of each other had me thinking a lot about the 1980s. I never had much time for ’80s youth pics when I was an ’80s youth, and I watched most of Hughes’s later cornball films, like the intolerable Plains, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), without digging them in the least: they were broad, sticky, and slick in the wrong way. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1985) was funny, but also queasy in its celebration of a self-impressed jack-off passing off his gross egotism as rebellion, an accusation I feel like aiming at the whole parade of ’80s teen flicks. At least part of my distrust of such works was, to put it in the parlance of this film, the Duckie in me: they’re the richies, smooth and carefully buffed so that no matter what truths they reflect, they come back bathed in a glitzy sheen. I’d much rather one of the more recent films that have made a meal of the tired carcass of ’80s pop culture, like Zoolander (2001) or Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004).

But the accolades after his death for the core group of Hughes films—Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Bueller, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)—that retain a tremendously loyal cult made me feel, as Iona (Annie Potts) says of her friend who never went to the prom, like I’d missed something. And in Pretty in Pink, I found something of what they were talking about. In that very narrow range of experience those films charted, most of the praise comes for their accuracy in portraying teenage self-dramatisation and for not eliding the social schisms that plague high school society. I suppose this praise is something of a slap at recent, nakedly materialist youth fiction like Gossip Girl and the pretty dullards who bounce through contemporary teen dramas.


But a socially cynical aspect was always present in films looking at American rites of passage in diverse works like King’s Row (1940), Rebel without a Cause (1955), Peyton Place (1957), Home from the Hill (1960), and a host of others, quite often with rather more caustic, troubling perspectives. There have always been the friends from the wrong side of the tracks, the Cinderella romance, the troubled outcasts, the skeletons in the closet, the intergenerational hang-ups. Hughes “reinvented” the genre for the ’80s, which meant, in essence, gluing synth-pop and shitty clothes all over it, and providing a set template of predictable story arcs and familiar dramatic beats delivered with the sort of rhythm screenwriting guides adore.


Pretty in Pink displays the strengths and weaknesses of this little subgenre in equal measure, though Hughes didn’t direct it (and it’s interesting to note the popular auteur status Hughes gained despite mostly being a writer and producer). Far more modest and low-key than the greasy Bueller, it’s fairly amusing in places, with some deftly sketched comic types abutting moderately detailed protagonists and a sense of detail. The key moment comes early on, having noted how Molly Ringwald’s financially strapped heroine Andie Walsh constructs inventive costumes to wear, only to be instantly skewered by the rich girls for whom it is the precise lack of necessary inventiveness and industry entailed in being able to buy fashionable clothes that is significant. There’s a lot of truth in that moment, but one shouldn’t mistake it for much more than a good way of getting us on the heroine’s side. Andie, the daughter of Jack (Harry Dean Stanton), a sad-sack, semi-employed divorcee, has two loyal companions: Phil “Duckie” Dale (Jon Cryer), her high-pressure, low-achieving admirer, and Iona (Annie Potts), her thirty-something, lovelorn, nostalgic coworker in a shopping mall record store.


On the threshold of moving on, with a scholarship in sight, Andie catches the eye of two “richies,” as they call the yuppie larvae who stride around with their mullets and Don Johnson suits. One of them, Steff (James Spader), makes sly propositions to Andie whilst claiming to deplore her as trash, but she rejects him out of hand. The other, Steff’s friend Blane McDonnagh (Andrew McCarthy), is gentle and engages her in discursive, uneasy conversations that accurately record the way intelligent young people flirt. However, their first date is a near- calamity. Blane takes Andie to a party of Steff’s, where she’s treated with colossal contempt by the other richies, and Duckie, jealous beyond all reason, rebuffs Blane’s efforts to be friendly. But they have a great kiss, and Andie gushes excitedly to her father. The snaky Steff, however, instills enough doubt in Blane’s mind to make him back away from Andie, inspiring two furious showdowns, one in which Andie repeatedly demands Blane admit that he’s dumping her because she’s poor, and then Duckie crash-tackling and brawling with Steff before running off and tearing down the prom banner.


It’s a strong, if corny, sequence, that captures the inevitable moment for a teenager when just how unfair life can be first shocks us. But Hughes built his films out of alternations of high comedy and melodrama, jerking from one pole to the other according to what point in the running time it is. Quick, we’re at the end of the first hour: let’s have Andie fight with her old man and bust up with Blane so we can resolve it in another half-hour. Hughes also loved constructing smart-mouthed, hyperactive characters whose lovable/annoying bluff often conceals deep insecurity. Ferris Bueller lacked the insecurity, which was passed off onto his troubled friend; later, John Candy’s characters in Planes, Trains and Uncle Buck portrayed them as grown ups. Duckie fits this template to a tee. Cutaways to Duckie in his seamy, lonely apartment are not explained or contextualised: how or why he’s living there isn’t clarified. In a Stephen King story, he’d conjure up a demon lawnmower or something to take bloody revenge. Here he settles for showing up at the prom with a pompadour and spiff suit, and saves Andie from the embarrassment of entering alone.


Some of the film’s minutiae, like Andie fretfully pondering if going out with a rich guy reeks of “material,” or Iona stapling unsold records to the store’s ceiling in an attempt to jazz the place up, possess authentic flavor, and Hughes and Deutch have a real affection for their characters, holding their interaction up as the real prize. But it’s an interaction that is continually built around pop images, from Duckie, singing John Lennon’s “Love” during a study session with Andie, to Iona making Andie dance with her whilst Iona wears her prom dress and a beehive wig. In a superfluous, yet crucial scene, Duckie dances to “Try a Little Tenderness” in the record store, amateur, but dynamic in his moves. It’s a moment that shows what happened to the musical: it didn’t die immediately, it just went naturalistic. Pretty in Pink is a film dotted with those immortal, long-derided mainstays of ’80s pop-cinema: music-scored montages, sing-alongs, and mime-alongs. These were part of the compromise Hollywood wrung out of templates like The Graduate (1967) and American Graffiti (1973) in trying to reconcile new realism in cinema with the epic flavouring that had always been Hollywood’s specialty: as effectively as any musical, Pretty in Pink finds the self-mythologising potential in everyday lives.


The trouble is it’s never hard to perceive the contrivance. The story wouldn’t work without placing passive characters at the mercy of broad manipulation: Blane, charming and dry in the early part, spends the latter half of the film glaring in cross-eyed fashion at people who act in grossly offensive ways. The filmmakers elide the moments of real crisis (like, say, when Blane will have to tell his apparently snobby parents about his low-rent girlfriend, or when Duckie may have to come clean about his circumstances) and provides easy out-clauses for the characters. Jack can’t get over his wife leaving him to the point where it’s corroding his ability to survive? Well at least he and Andie can have a teary get-together. Duckie’s left without the love of his life? Let’s casually toss him a blonde at the prom.

Andie, despite her independence and intelligence, finally reveals herself to be entirely at the mercy of her own social anxiety, a convenient touch that allows her to appeal to both the feminist and wannabe princess in the women watching. Duckie is more demonstrative, but equally malleable, swinging from hyped-up caricature to would-be empathy figure from scene to scene. In his first appearence, he makes a ludicrous come-on to two girls, which gets him floored by a punch, a silly moment that only makes sense in movieland. Hughes’ sociology is not to be mistaken for depth. It’s more a charting of common impulses—for the (then) over-30s to miss their fading youth; for under-30s to claim their post-counterculture right to self-expression; for everyone to feel sorry for the losers without having to yield them substantial solace.


The film’s conclusion was infamously altered according to test screenings from Duckie landing Andie to a final clinch for Andie and Blane in the school parking lot. This was held to be a betrayal of the theme, but in truth, neither ending is terribly comfortable. The current ending feels rushed and scant, but the first one wouldn’t have worked on account of Duckie’s being barely tolerable. As it is, at least it doesn’t validate refusal to grow up: Duckie confronts the idea that he doesn’t need Andie to grow up, Andie accepts human weaknesses, and Blane overcomes his passivity. In truth, Spader slams them all into the ground in terms of charisma, moving with the feral pride of a lion through all his scenes whilst hinting at some repressed injury behind his patent asshole exterior.


I can see why Ringwald made a mark in these films at the time and also why she never became a star of substance: a gracious and easy screen presence, but also not much of an actress, she makes Andie winsome and sensitive, but is a dud at providing the spikier, more cynical intelligence and social awkwardness the part demands. But possibly that’s the filmmakers’ fault, too, as well as the secret of their success—knowing how to provide a main character to whom labels are constantly affixed, but who is actually a blank slate.

So, yes, I’m still not on board with the Hughes thing. Still, there are worse way to spend an hour and a half.