Searching for Amélie in Montmartre

We stepped out of Lamarck-Caulaincourt metro station, where Amélie Poulain held the arm of a blind man and vividly described the street life around them:

Lamarck Caulaincourt metro station
Lamarck Caulaincourt metro station

We wandered the streets of Montmartre, where she lived:

Montmartre
Montmartre

Found Café des Deux Moulins, where she worked:

Cafe des 2 Moulins
Cafe des 2 Moulins

Came across her favourite grocery store, where she shopped:

Fruits et legumes
Fruits et legumes

And walked up the steps of the Sacre Coeur, where she acted out an elaborate scheme to woo her love:

On the steps of the Sacre Coeur
On the steps of the Sacre Coeur

Although I’ve previously said that the most romantic film set in Paris is Before Sunset – a claim I still stand by – Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain hits all the right notes when it comes to quirky French romance. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times and it’s one of my favourites. The film also featured many other locations in Paris, but Amelie is first and foremost a Montmartre film. It’s the most romantic district of Paris, and has an old world air about it that even the rest of romantic Paris can’t quite match.

Some of the criticisms of Amelie at the time was that it had a “Mary Poppins-ish depiction of a Paris where no colored people are to be seen and old-fashioned attitudes reign” (David Stratton). I didn’t fully get that criticism until I spent some time in Paris, and specifically, in Montmartre.

Montmartre has a light-filled, tourist-friendly and photogenic side, which is brought to the fore by the film – hilly back streets, open parks and stunning vistas. In the summer the whole area has a wonderful holiday feel with gorgeous boutiques, endless cafes, and a lot of choice when it comes to fun food – treats like cheap crispy churros in a paper cone, jumbo macarons and gelato in all the colours of the rainbow. I spent many a happy afternoon.

Cote d'Ivoire restaurant
Cote d’Ivoire restaurant

Then there’s the more multicultural, grungy side that there isn’t a trace of in the movie – the side I loved most of all. Cool bars, graffiti, the whole bit. One afternoon we stumbled across a Cote d’Ivoire restaurant, which ended up being one of the best meals I had. Actually, many of the meals I liked in Paris were the non-French ones, and most exciting of all was the food from a continent I know almost nothing about. Food like deep fried plaintain, grilled fish with salad and marinated chicken really excited my palate.

I suppose the critics of Amelie were saying that it was yet another film that presented a rarefied view of Paris, a romantic notion based on an imagined present – and an imagined past. And there certainly is a danger in propping up notions of national identity that set back the agenda of multiculturalism in France. The film might have been slightly guilty by omission – more colour-blind casting would have been great – but I don’t know that it’s fair to expect independent, artistic creations to fulfill a political agenda. At worst, it’s just a wasted opportunity. We should also expect intelligence on the part of audiences to draw their own conclusions. And anyway, the film is pure fantasy and doesn’t pretend to be otherwise.

It’s fair to say that the idea of Paris that most people have is at odds with the reality of what the city is actually like. It’s a beautiful place, but it’s also a living, breathing city with all the messiness that entails – and films like Amelie don’t really explain that complexity very well because they’re very neat. Ultimately, Amelie is a story about specifics, that helps to tell a story about universals. I still love it as much as ever, even thought I appreciate now more than before, how much of a fiction it really is.

Inside cool bar Les Taulieres, Montmartre
Inside cool bar Les Taulieres, Montmartre
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