Is Amelie a racist tract?
December 6, 2001 12:23 PM   Subscribe

Is Amelie a racist tract? Yes, it paints a homogenous portrait of Paris, but it's also obviously a fairy tale. Jeunet's other films have had a similar cultural makeup yet were never decried as racist - but they were not this successful. Does the outrageous success of the film mean that it should be more representative of France? Should we demand a retroactive revision of a film's intent as it does more business?
posted by videodrome (40 comments total)
I can imagine how seeing it blown completely out of proportion by the French press would make one want to look closely at it, pick it apart.

It was a cute little movie, seeing it as I did here in New York. It was charming, but essentially a typical hollywood movie with much better cinematography and set design.

It made it very, very clear to me (as if Alien 4 hadn't) that Jeunet NEEDS Caro to make a movie I'll actually like (Delicatessen, City of Lost Children) -- Jeunet is too willing to fall into the kind of easy cardboard characters this article points out, and weak plot lines.
posted by malphigian at 12:40 PM on December 6, 2001

bah -- a lot of films lack "color". I can think of very few movies that I've seen that successfully integrate multiple cultures or races -- but this doesn't make them racist. To say they don't reflect "real life" might be a valid critique, but christ -- it's a film, and it would have to be incredible to reflect a real life or polycultural state. Maybe I'm just watching the wrong films, I don't know.

Meanwhile, with "Amelie" in specific, I have read a number of bad reviews by the weeklies (that are more or less along the lines of the "review" given in the article you linked) and they have similar critiques -- too "sweet", no "substance", etc (can't find a link at the moment as the paper in question is a few weeks out of date.). It seems every time a "independent"-type film (although it's hard to say Jeunet is still an independent director -- but Amelie, I believe, is undeniably "indie" in the US, because it's not from Hollywood, and is a foreign language flick.) gets popular, the independent-type press feels a need to take a shot at it -- as if it must hold up to higher standards now that it's in wide release . I can't recall ANYONE writing a good review of a popular indie film in the 8 years I've been reading weeklies -- I guess if the "masses" like it, it must suck. Apparently the independent press is far too punk rock for popular acclaim.

Anyhoo, now that I've seen it panned by 3 reviewers, I feel a need to go check it out and see what all the noise is about.
posted by fishfucker at 12:45 PM on December 6, 2001

Oh come on. Jesus. This is why nobody reads Cahiers du Cinema anymore.
posted by luriete at 12:47 PM on December 6, 2001

woody allen's new york has been accused of the same thing.
posted by kliuless at 12:49 PM on December 6, 2001

Bah. It was a cute movie. It gave me the warm fuzzies all over. And, it was smarter than the normal pap.
posted by ColdChef at 12:53 PM on December 6, 2001

A French film reviewer going off the handle? Sacre bleu!

Having not seen the film yet, I can't judge it. But I'll echo fishfucker's (God, I love typing that) sentiment about weekly critics. Having just moved to Chicago, I discovered the appalling Johnathan Rosenbaum, who epitomizes the stereotypical "film weenie." His writing style tries to be oh-so-clever and he goes the Kael route of trying to slam the movies he doesn't like with scathing wit, but really, I just picture this fey, lanky, beret-wearing douchebag attempting to slapfight someone.

So, my brief thread hijack: someone needs to save film from the film weenies.
posted by solistrato at 12:56 PM on December 6, 2001

What a dope! I never for a moment believed that I was seeing the "real" Paris while I was watching "Amelie," any more than I believed that I was seeing the real American south while I was watching "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" It's called make-believe. We love "Amelie" because of its poetic intensification of a few small details of everyday life and it's whimsical, throwaway beauty. The guy who wrote this article is so jealous of "Amelie's" success, you can almost hear the munching and crunching as it eats his guts out.
posted by Faze at 12:57 PM on December 6, 2001

As one who often sides with such over-intellectualized crap as this, I must tread lightly . . .

To get a bit Freudian, there are times when a film is just a film - a happy bit of escapism and nothing more. To start ascribing a subtle racism to Amilie, well that's just kooky.

Admittedly, mass popular culture has always hinged on a certain ethnocentricity. How many individuals of minortiy descent grace episodes of Seinfeld, Dawson's Creek, or Buffy?

But to suggest that this penchant for ethnic homogeneity results in something that actively aids and abets a superior race philosophy? Kinda loopy.

Charles Shultz was often criticized for not incorporating more persons of color into Peanuts (let's hear it for Franklin!). He responded by saying that he didn't write about the condition of minorities because he didn't feel his life experiences qualified him to do so.

This does not Charlie Brown a skinhead make.

Shultz was Shultz, Jeunet is Jeunet and they both express themselves with their own voices. Asking them to do otherwise in the name of political expediency would be a travesty. Should there be films that better represent different cultures and backgrounds? Absolutely. But this lack should be blamed on the movie making machine itself, and not on the visions of individual artists.
posted by aladfar at 12:58 PM on December 6, 2001 [1 favorite]

That's the worst review of a movie I've read in a long time.
posted by mrbula at 1:07 PM on December 6, 2001

kliuless, J Hoberman's Villiage Voice review mentioned the Manhattan criticism parallel. And it was in Boston's weekly Phoenix that I first saw Amelie referenced as possibly racist by comparing it's intent to that of Triumph of the Will in a review of Baise Moi.

As I implied by calling the film a fairy tale, I found it to be warm and squishy in a way that didn't make me feel foolish or insipid. It's a celebration of the everyday, and a good time. To make the film anything more than that, through positive or negative criticism, is simply overreaching.

It's a hijacking of the successful; as long as something is fringe enough, no one really cares if it's 'properly representative' or not. As more people pay attention, though, demands mount for the object of attention to be something for everyone.

And luriete, I agree, but evidently not everyone does. This is also why I very rarely read Film Comment.
posted by videodrome at 1:12 PM on December 6, 2001

Knowing nothing about this film, I stumbled into the theater last weekend and was amazed. I agree that several of the characters were severely one-dimensional (the old painter, the "slow" vegetable stand guy) but it didn't sway me from its overall appeal.

The premise lies somewhere between a fairy tale and a dream. The characters are confused, and sometimes lack reason, which reflects what I feel every single day. The movie, to me, is about bettering yourself, making something out of a partially wasted life. In a small way it was inspiring.

Oh yeah, and the cinematography kicked ass.
posted by Benway at 1:15 PM on December 6, 2001

The subheading is telling: To hear the French tell it, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film hasn't only saved French cinema as we know it, it's saved France. And videodrome said: As more people pay attention, though, demands mount for the object of attention to be something for everyone.

I think this sort of thing is quite common in smaller cultural industries — something achieves some success and is immediately latched on to with claws of steel by the surrounding industry, simply because they have little else to go on (I'm speaking from a country that glorifies Celine Dion, for cripes sake). The industry, in looking for an artistic or cultural voice that can be heard, ends up putting silly and unreasonable expectations on the artist.
posted by transient at 1:20 PM on December 6, 2001

Seemed like the reviewer was criticizing Jeunet for not doing things that he thought he should have done. I haven't seen the movie, so the sound you're hearing is coming right out of my ass, but I never got the feeling that Amelie was supposed to be about any of the things the reviewer is criticizing. If Jeunet had tried to show the true character of France in 1997 and failed, that's one thing, but bitching about a candy-cane look at the lower class and minority situations in Paris in a movie that is billed as a modern fairy tale seems a bit of a non sequitor.

Incidentally, the story of my life would also be a racist tract, because I am not surrounded by the correct proportions of ethnic composition. I have way to many Asian and Middle-Eastern friends, and far too few black friends. (Also I am a grand poobah in the KKK, but don't tell anybody) Clearly, apportioning people of color on an algebraic basis is the only way to treat them with dignity and respect.
posted by Hildago at 1:21 PM on December 6, 2001

Apparently, the film's big in Paramus. I found it very devastatingly disappointing: like a long trailer for a film which wasn't made; great looking, but zero depth. I think what happens is the better a film is visually, or is terms of some gimmick, the most critical people are about its flaws: high expectations, unfulfilled : (

The French do beauty and aesthetics SO damn well...; they are obsessed with beauty, but it can't carry a film, unless, perhaps you are young and/or uninitiated to France and Paris and are content with the visuals. The French turn out a whole lot of beautiful-looking vapid films which are too short on substance not to be labeled a failure; this is one. This was not Diva. But at least it wasn't the most beautiful-looking, beautiful sounding, most vapid film of all time, Le Grande Bleu.

PS: I also thought Ameilie was kind of sadistic in places.
posted by ParisParamus at 1:24 PM on December 6, 2001

...the most critical people are...
=more critical people are
posted by ParisParamus at 1:27 PM on December 6, 2001

This criticism is old recycled hat, and tedious, and pathetic.

Racist? Yeah, like all of French television and most French movies. You can watch days of French-made television and see nothing but white people. And in the year I spent in Paris, most of the French films I saw had few non-whites. They hardly even throw in *token* minorities, much less make them stars. (There are exceptions, of course, and good ones). The French tend to forget that those foreign films they like so much aren't theirs and do not represent them; French film is and has always been principally white and European.

That said, Jamel, the one-name comedian who plays the fruit stand worker with the gimp arm in Amelie, is of Maghrebian descent (which refers to Tunisia, Morrocco and Algeria), which I believe counts as a minority.

There are other things wrong with this particular review (and the review which it responds to; this piece is a regurgiation of what was said at length in the Paris papers last spring): there are no "inner-city youths" in Paris. There is no inner city. Now, perhaps that's the fault of the translator who decided that being from the "banlieu," which translates as the "suburbs" would be misunderstood by anglophones, and so came up with a sociological rather than semantic translation. However, the rough parts of Paris are on the outskirts, not in the city center.

I should add that the notion of "Frenchness" is embraced with fervor by many French in the same way that "American-ness" is embraced by many Americans. It's not necessarily accurate or up-to-date, but it's how they see themselves. The French, however, have a penchant for ignoring the obvious in the face of overwhelming evidence (and forgetting the past in light of overwhelming culpability) that Americans tend not to have. And that's where I'd give this particular bit of film criticism its approval: This film *does* reflect an inaccurate view of France. It's sweet, pleasant and harmless, ultimately, but inaccurate. Today is not the day that the French revise their view of their Frenchness. I suspect when they do, we'll have to carve another revolution date on the monuments alongside the half dozen or so others.
posted by Mo Nickels at 1:28 PM on December 6, 2001

Also, I agree there's no obligation on the part of a film maker to advance multiculturalism (not that France doesn't need that--it does).
posted by ParisParamus at 1:36 PM on December 6, 2001

... there's no obligation on the part of a film maker to advance multiculturalism

I agree. But do you agree that cultural production, as a whole, has a responsibility to reflect the culture it exists in? And if so, how to reconcile these points?
posted by transient at 1:46 PM on December 6, 2001

Transcient: if, over time, a country's production of films, or whatever, didn't reflect that country, there would be an issue (if only in the sense that minorities weren't making films). But to get on an individual film maker's case for the racist claim is dumb.
posted by ParisParamus at 2:01 PM on December 6, 2001

It's called make-believe. We love "Amelie" because of its poetic intensification of a few small details of everyday life and it's whimsical, throwaway beauty.

But that's the point. If "whimsical, throwaway beauty" is portrayed by excluding people of color, doesn't that imply that fairy tale land is for white people only? Amelie is not alone among French films for excluding people of color. Even though the people who make these desicions may not be blatantly racist, but when their choices are made manifest on the big screen a sort of racial blindness emerges.

That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy Amelie for what it was. But this blindness limits what it could have been.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:01 PM on December 6, 2001

I also thought Ameilie was kind of sadistic in places.

I really hope you aren't referring to the idea championed by a few loud reviewers that Amelie is a selfish, manipulative bitch who uses everyone she comes into contact with in order to further cushion her ego.

I hate that one.
posted by brittney at 2:11 PM on December 6, 2001

That one, yes. I just have a low tolerance for sadistic activity, whatever the context. By the way, I think that kind of sadism is rather French.
posted by ParisParamus at 2:15 PM on December 6, 2001

But do you agree that cultural production, as a whole, has a responsibility to reflect the culture it exists in? And if so, how to reconcile these points?

Well, ideally, yes. But it's thorny - on the level of individual output, I'd agree each has a responsibility only to one's own experience, rather than to pure representation of surrounding culture. It's difficult to reconcile that idea with high-handed notions of the responsibility of cultural production as an aggregate. So I keep the ideal of wide-scale artistic responsibility largely because I think it's inevitable; while some artists will be concerned with representing their own interiors, others will take a more culturally-oriented view. I don't know enough about France and it's artistic output to judge in the case of Amelie but I do suspect that, as has been mentioned, perhaps it's more representative of France than some critics would like. I'd be more willing to engage in an argument that posits the film as representative of older Parisians, who perhaps selectivly filter out some of the ethnicities around them.

If "whimsical, throwaway beauty" is portrayed by excluding people of color, doesn't that imply that fairy tale land is for white people only?

Depends on how you read the film. If you take it as an internal monologue - i.e. representative of one man's portrait of the ideal - than, no. In that case it's an inference, not an implication. We'd be making an assumption based on what's not in the text rather than what is. Based solely on the film, it's impossible to say why there are few cultures present on Amelie's streets. If we were talking about an official record (there's Triumph of the Will again) it would be a different story. But that leads back to my original question. With all of this context behind us, does the great success of the film in France mean that the nation as a whole, is inferring the image of a colour-free fairy land, or are they all individually enjoying a tale celebrating the small details of life? I go with the latter, but as I said above, I'm willing to allow that there's a wider cultural subtext referring to how the white French as a whole picture their ideal country.

PS: I also thought Ameilie was kind of sadistic in places.

Hm, yeah - a bit. But that seems to be a component of humor commonly found in European films. It's not present so much in American films, where we like to go with the wider, less biting humiliation.
posted by videodrome at 2:17 PM on December 6, 2001

It's not up to the film makers to advance a certain color. That's just sheer idiocy, in like with the humourous, yet troubling propoganda nonesense. Further the cause of the people's part and all that.

Having said that, Amelie is really annoying, it's 'It's Pat with You got Mail', only french. All the characters are one dimensional, the story starts out and plods along halfway before adapting the romance, then dropping it, and then going back and ending in credits. Is it about Amelie getting over her unhappy childhood or her meeting this fab porn-shop guy? I don't care, it got all too annoying with it's 'at 12:45 this and that and then at 4:51 that happened', it's not like this wasn't used at all befoure. At all.

It would have been a lot more fun if Amelie starts becoming dangerously crazy and tries to get revenge on everyone she meets, killing people. At one point in the film it looked like it could go that way, but it didn't.
posted by tiaka at 2:24 PM on December 6, 2001

But do you agree that cultural production, as a whole, has a responsibility to reflect the culture it exists in?

I don't think cultural production can be said to have responsibility, but it can certainly reflect latent prejudices. The Western world is deeply racist. The whiteness of media is a vicious cycle -- one expects to see white people in the media, and that is what one sees.
posted by sudama at 2:24 PM on December 6, 2001

Hm, yeah - a bit. But that seems to be a component of humor commonly found in European films. It's not present so much in American films, where we like to go with the wider, less biting humiliation

Which rendered Fish Called Wanda unwatchable for me....
posted by ParisParamus at 2:25 PM on December 6, 2001

I see your point, Paris, but the arguments for that notion are usually shallow. They often point to the scene with the blind man first thing. They presume to believe that it is cruel to describe in detail the sights and sounds of a city street to someone who will never experience it first hand. They say she is thoughtless in her actions and is concerned only with making herself feel like a cute, charmed little cherub.

But a friend who went to see Amelie with her aunt who has taught at the School for the Blind for 18 years thought the scene was delightful and liked the movie better for it. Sure, a teacher of the blind is not herself blind, however to assume what a person without sight would think of such an act is simply arrogant.

And take for instance the vendor guy at the vegetable stand. How did Amelie use this man?
posted by brittney at 2:32 PM on December 6, 2001

the scene with the blind man first thing.

Not at all what I was thinking about. If fact, I can't recall the scenes which game the the impression of sadique

P.S. I saw the film in the 'burbs, and a few rows back and over was the Dr. Ruth.
posted by ParisParamus at 2:42 PM on December 6, 2001

>This does not Charlie Brown a skinhead make.

heh. cool.
posted by kilroy at 2:48 PM on December 6, 2001

like a long trailer for a film which wasn't made

You're so right about that. Where was the plot? I was so sick of that girl's face by the end. All she could do was mischievousness or amused curiousity.

Notting Hill had the same accusation made against it, although I think the problem there is that Richard Curtis is unable to write about any other social group than his upper-middle-class mates. Some people can only do what they know. What's better, writing about people you understand, or forcing in a few badly-written token characters from different ethnic or class backgrounds merely for the sake of balance?
posted by Summer at 3:53 PM on December 6, 2001

I saw Amelie a few weeks ago, and I liked it. It was a cute little piece of fluff. I doubt that I'll see it again, but you know, it made me realize that those 2 years of French I took weren't a complete waste (I was able to kind of follow things without the subtitles).

I was unaware that all movies that are made have to completely and accurately reflect the culture in which they are set. Or else risk being called racist, sexist, or [insert term of approbation here]. That's bloody ridiculous. It would be like expecting every single book written to accurately reflect society--I know that when I read a book, I don't sit there and count how many minorities appear as characters and what the quality of the characterization is, and if I find any lack, to scream that it's a racist tract that no one should read. But people often do this with movies--is it because a film shows the visual realization of a person's mental vision, and a book is just a vision expressed in words, so you can pretend that a character is brown even if they really aren't?
posted by eilatan at 4:01 PM on December 6, 2001

How many individuals of minortiy descent grace episodes of Seinfeld, Dawson's Creek, or Buffy?

Hey! Can you possibly have forgotten Buffy's Mr Trick and Forrest? Admittedly the first was the vampire minion of the evil Mayor and the second got killed and resurrected as a zombie demon... Umm, and Willow's Jewish. Okay, you win.

What's really weird about Buffy is that it's a show about teenagers set in Southern California, and I don't remember there ever being a character of Asian descent. What unholy alt-universe SoCal is this? Admittedly, there was that one woman on Angel, but she was a femme fatale dragon lady. Groundbreaking characterization, I don't think.
posted by rdc at 4:06 PM on December 6, 2001

Um, I guess the guy missed the "fantasy" aspect of the film (if not the title). I thought it was excellent, and resent those cultural tyrants who insist that all art be like Disney crap and Gap ads with a pre-set ratio of racial representation. Reality ain't like that, much less fantasy or art.

Racial equity/inequity or participation/representation isn't the central point of every book, movie or tv program--except in the minds of the obsessed.
posted by rushmc at 5:04 PM on December 6, 2001 [1 favorite]

I thought the movie was excellent, btw.
posted by rushmc at 5:05 PM on December 6, 2001

Whenever real-time reaction to media comes into play, these issues *seem* more relevant (remember your first microwave oven? :-))). Response to books, for whatever reason [insert reason here], are still a more controlled interaction. People will always seem to expect more from (and seem to respond more to) media that they have a more immediate connection to.
posted by kilroy at 5:40 PM on December 6, 2001

each has a responsibility only to one's own experience, rather than to pure representation of surrounding culture.
This is where I think the linked review gets it wrong; it is ridiculous to take offence because a single popular film (even if it might be the only one on that global scale of popularity at the moment) does not represent the whole of your culture; the real issue is that only a certain segment of society has the means to make films, no?
posted by transient at 6:25 PM on December 6, 2001

Quote from Jeunet: "We [digitally] cleared the streets of all cars, cleaned the graffiti off the walls, replaced posters with more colorful ones."
posted by panopticon at 9:19 PM on December 6, 2001

'Charming*' always hosts an asterisk. Ignore it, or risk becoming one.
posted by Opus Dark at 10:00 PM on December 6, 2001

i just think that selecting someone saying "mm you are a minority, SO we'll hire you" is more racist and insulting than not selecting him/her because s/he does not correspond to the need, or selecting him/her because s/he is good. That's why we don't need to hide behind quotas and politically correct here in France : we see people as individual, not as "belong to a minority" - labelling, classing people under any "minority" IS racist and insulting, i just can't understand how it would be good ...
posted by aureliano buendia at 4:49 AM on December 7, 2001

Complaining that Amélie is racist because it didn't acknowledge minorities is like complaining that the art museum is unfair to blind people because the decriptions of the paintings aren't in braille.

Me, I liked it. Too bad for those that didn't.
posted by Down10 at 2:23 PM on December 9, 2001

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