I grew up in a small town in Connecticut that was founded in 1659. These colonial roots are a source of great pride for a particularly zealous faction of the town’s residents who, several times a year, hold a variety of Revolutionary War reenactments, muster fairs, fife and drum parades, et al—all of which involve costumes and tours of diminutive school houses and someone’s collection of obsessively polished muskets. Once, I attempted to explain to someone that I couldn’t get a bagel because a parade of horse-drawn carriages had caused a massive traffic jam on Main Street during one of these gala festivals, describing the pomp and circumstance in such detail that I got sucked into my own story and ended up concocting an elaborate scheme to become a part of the celebrations. I told him that I was going to learn how to make soap and—donning my bonnet, a plethora of skirts, and an intricately embroidered eye patch—would vend my wares at a booth at the fair. When I was inevitably asked what harm had befallen my oculus, I would describe, with the appropriate amount of sadness and lingering horror, the lye that had splashed into my eye during a freak soap-making accident involving a goat and a small child churning butter. Shortly after that, I was casually diagnosed as having “an overactive imagination”.
Children are encouraged to embrace whatever bizarre fantasies their imaginations concoct, urged to act them out, to write stories, to draw pictures, to have imaginary tea parties with rabbits and ogres. And thank god they are, because kids should never be made to feel like their minds have any boundaries. As we age, though, we’re often encouraged to stifle these flights of fancy, to “grow up” or “act like adults”—which apparently means being miserable dullards.
I’ve never been particularly good at acting like an adult.
Naturally, as we learn more about our world and ourselves, we lose that sense of wonder that comes with absolutely everything being brand new, but it shouldn’t mean that the trade-off for this knowledge is boredom, or sadness, or defeat, because those sparks are still there. The very idea of “an overactive imagination” bothers me, because it implies that a grown person who indulges themselves in some chimerical brain time is borderline at best—unless, of course, they happen to be some sort of bonafide creative-type that has been given permission to let their mind wander the fantastic plain. The prevailing societal notion seems to be that if there’s no tangible, marketable, creative output at the other end of some particular flight of fancy, then it’s a flight that probably shouldn’t be taken.
Times are hard for dreamers.
The expectations and responsibilities that weigh on us, clogging up our hearts and minds with timetables and deadlines and figures and bills, can make the very thought of being alive almost wholly unappealing, if only because we have enough awareness to know that spreadsheets and grocery shopping do not a life make. In between meetings and errands and web pages we start remembering all the small things that used to produce squeals of delight from our younger selves, growing dizzyingly jealous of these forgotten children—all the freedom, curiosity, and capacity for joy they possessed.
Sometimes it takes a film like Amélie to remind us.
I had not yet been to Paris when I first saw Amelie, but I quickly found myself enraptured by the irrepressible charms of both Audrey Tatou and The City of Lights itself, with its cavernous train stations and intricate architecture. I wanted to skip stones off of arbor covered bridges and drink coffee in warm croissant colored cafés. I ached to buy a baguette from the marché and sop up every last morsel of local color.
A few years later, I found myself skipping up a hilly street in Montmartre—Amélie’s neighborhood!—feeling like my feet were barely touching the ground. When the street plateaued, I made my way over to the carousel that captured my heart on screen, and carefully selected a candy-colored confection of a horse as my own noble steed. I was the lone adult bobbing up and down while the lights glinted off the wide eyes of the handful of children I rode along beside. And in that moment, my eyes were every bit as wide.
Amélie is so universally enchanting because it taps into our desire to exist in a place where the most mundane occurrences are wonders, a place where we are never too busy to celebrate the glory of this strange and wonderful world. A world where a children’s carousel becomes the secret location of a clandestine meeting and a gnome becomes a world traveler. Through the eyes of Ms. Poulain, we see the prosaic details of our personalities transform into hopelessly charming quirks, those eccentricities that make us individuals, and start believing—if only for a few hours—that there is a beauty in absolutely everything and that most anything can happen, if only you let it.
The worlds that we inhabit in our dreams, waking or otherwise, tend to be more exaggerated versions of the worlds that we habit in real time: colors are more saturated, buildings are a little bit stranger, and people seem like caricatures of themselves. The lush, gorgeously colored, slightly off-kilter tableaus in Amélie’s world are an homage to the quirky grandiosity of our heroine’s imagination, the place that she chooses to inhabit. After the death of her mother, young Amélie is left with her cold, repressed father and retreats ever inward, creating a life for herself that is colorful and just and funny and full of love. Reality and fantasy meld together, and within this winsome technicolor amalgamation, adult Amélie exists. Having rejected the dull, disappointing aspects of her life, she spends most of her time in the safety of her mind, trying to escape the loneliness that lingers just outside.
Amélie is certainly not the first person with a keen sense of self-preservation. Many who get hurt, or suffer a great loss, will recoil at the feeling of someone’s hand on their shoulder, terrified that this hand will be the next one to disappear. This emotional conservation has turned Amélie into a bit of a recluse and also a bit of a contradiction. She yearns to love and to be loved, but is too stunted and afraid to open herself up to the possibility. Instead, she loves things: perfectly smooth skipping stones, plunging her hands into sacks of grain, people’s faces in the dark of a matinée. Allowing another person into this world that she guards so passionately is just the kind of reality check she does not want. And so, to curb her own unhappiness, she begins instead to look outside of herself, living vicariously through others’ manufactured good fortune.
She pitted herself against the grinding windmills of all life’s miseries.
It all begins with a news broadcast. Lady Di has died in a car wreck. Taken aback, Amélie drops the stopper of an apothecary bottle, which rolls across her bathroom floor, knocking loose a tile on the other side. In the gap in the wall, she finds a tin box containing the treasures of a young boy that lived in her apartment in the 1950’s. Remembering her own powerful attachments to trinkets and tokens and personal totems, she becomes determined to find the box’s owner so that she can return what is rightfully his. And after seeing first hand, if indirectly, the owner’s powerful reaction to being reunited with something so dear—and how much it means to someone to receive such unexpected kindness—Amélie immediately embarks on a good-doing campaign. She lives vicariously through the unfortunate people she chooses to help, trying to find what’s been missing from her life by returning to others the precious things they have lost. She is petrified to get too close to anyone, and yet she can’t stop herself from becoming intimately involved in their lives. She meddles from a distance—and it seems only Raymond Dufayel (“The Glass Man”) knows what Amélie is really up to.
Dufayel is, at first blush, Amélie’s foil. Where she is young and beautiful and free, Raymond is elderly and fragile, trapped in his apartment with bones as shatterable as crystal. Betraying the advantages and gifts of her youth, Amélie is just as much a prisoner to her fears as Raymond is to his body. Dufayel watches as she avenges the innocent and rights the world’s injustices, but he also sees the woman hiding behind these endearing escapades. He realizes there is a certain amount of dishonesty in Amélie’s joy-spreading crusade, as it is impossible for her to admit to having a hand in any of it. She is clever and wily and uses her dishonesty for the purest gain: to make people happy. It’s a game—a complicated, but childish, game. It’s easier to lie than to admit that she’s a coward, hiding behind her clever stratagems and whimsical meddling.
Nino Quincampoix is another lonely dreamer drifting through life, stopping to collectt torn and discarded photos from the booths in Paris’ metro stations; images of people in in flux, going and doing in ways he can only imagine for himself. When he loses his assemblage of souls one day, it is Amélie who is there to find it. She soon falls in love with the idea of the man behind this bizarre collection, which speaks to her on a level that she’s terrified to understand. She sends Nino on a wild goose chase to retrieve his precious album, all the while carefully observing him to make sure he is the man she thinks he is. She charmingly keeps him at arms’ length with riddles and costumes and covertly passed notes, with meeting times and meeting places cleverly chosen to both maintain her anonymity and allow her to glimpse the man she loves.
The stratagems are the same, but the stakes are much higher. When Dufayel eventually gets wind of her games, he behooves her to leave her imaginary fortress—without a costume or a mask or a treasure map—and experience the sort of joy that she has bestowed on everyone but herself.
They’ve known each other since always, in their dreams.
In the end, Amélie’s fantasy life finally expands to include someone else—in her home, in her head, and in her heart. Someone to go out in the rain and fetch her some yeast for her famous plum cake. Someone whose very existence makes her life a dream. For the first time, her imaginings are grounded in reality. When at last she actually meets Nino, it is just as it should be. There are no need for words because there is already a depth of understanding between them, one that comes from allowing yourself to truly know someone, and from letting go enough for them to know you, too. No matter how high the walls, there is always someone who can climb higher.
We can overcome our lots in life, refuse to succumb to our circumstances, take risks and make the leaps to find the joy that we know exists. We haven’t really grown up until we can find it in ourselves to take responsibility for our own happiness, to appreciate all the things that make us unique and strange and awkward and wonderful, and to accept the fact that most anything can happen. Being an adult means making peace with the child that lives in all of us and, when the time comes, trusting ourselves to hold out our hands and let those children lead the way.