From the early nineties to the early ‘aughts our screens were inundated with stories featuring the manic pixie dream girl. She was weird but in a cool way, and always marched to the beat of her own drum but still fell formulaically in love with whatever boy happened to be the writer’s stand-in for his geek boy angst. And I will admit that a geek boy writer I am as drawn to the manic pixie dream girl fantasy as the next nerd. But I realize that this character is a construct and that people, like life, are far more complicated. Hence my appreciation for the French masterpiece Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain; or simply Amelie in English. This film serves as a deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl archetype and digs deep into the psychological workings of its heroine without becoming broody or sacrificing her charm. For this edition of Character Study, we take a look at one of the great feminist characters of the last thirty years, Amelie Poulain.
The film begins by showing the audience a brief overview of Amelie’s childhood. Her parents are preoccupied and distant leading to emotional and physical isolation for Amelie. The only time Amelie’s father touches her is when he performs her monthly physical, the heart-pounding excitement of these rare interactions lead Amelie to be misdiagnosed with a heart defect. This, in turn, keeps her from attending school with the other children, further compounding her isolation. With no other children to play with and her mother dumping her goldfish and only friend into the river after one too many suicide attempts (by the fish) Amelie is forced to make do with her imagination. Like any skill, you use it or you lose it. As she grows up Amelie’s imagination flourishes while her social skills diminish. When we finally see her as an adult her imagination is as active as ever and has afforded her a unique way of looking at the world. The cost is that she is very much on the outside of society. After her mother dies her father recedes even further into himself, she lives alone and has a job where she rarely interacts with her coworkers and is never seen to interact with any costumers. She is not an outcast, she smiles politely and makes small talk with all she encounters but there is no depth to those interactions, she is not truly a part of the community.
This status as an outsider has its advantages. It allows Amelie to become a keen observer of human behavior. She sees every slight and every good deed and views herself as an arbiter of cosmic justice. She schemes to give people what they deserve, and often gets the satisfying result she is looking for. Her justice is not carried out in grand gestures or in severe punishments, rather it comes in the small things that can make or break a person’s day. It is cute, and a bit of wish fulfillment for the audience. After all which of us hasn’t wished to exact a little petty revenge on a rude shop keeper or do something kind for a sweet old lady in our building. But it again emphasizes Amelie’s position apart from the community. You cannot sit in judgment over people unless you see yourself as separate from them. Still, the satisfaction she gets from her escapades is enough to satisfy her for the time being.
She falters, however, when she puts her efforts towards matchmaking. While she is good at observing when it comes to matters of the heart she lacks an understanding of what it means to form a deeper bond with someone. This is reinforced when she encounters a young man who catches her eye, and unsure of what to do she keeps her distance. She plays her games. Which are cute and fun, for a time. But when it comes time to finally meet her would-be amour she chickens out. For all her imagination and free-spiritedness, she can’t take the risk that so many people do every day.
Eventually, with the help of those around her, Amelie takes the risk and gets her happy ending. Her journey from lonely child to happy well-adjusted adult is complete. Not because she found a man, but because she found the strength inside herself to take a risk. And that is why she is worthy of further Character Study.