Thoughts On: Amélie - Why I Love This Movie: Objective & Subjective Impressionism


Amélie - Why I Love This Movie: Objective & Subjective Impressionism

Thoughts On: Amélie (Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain, 2001)

Made by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, this is the French film of the series.

For the French film of the series, I've decided to finally talk about one of my all-time favorite films: Amélie. I've wanted to cover this film ever since I started the blog, but have always held back as I actually don't know what I'd have to say about it.

When I usually cover a film I take an approach that defines 'film theory and criticism' as 'the art of evaluation and re-articulation'. This essentially means that you judge a film as good or bad. In connection and sometimes in opposition to this, however, is one of the key tenants and justifying qualities of the existence of film theory and criticism - let it be emphasised it can be hard to justify the existence of something that can be impossibly masturbatory, miserable and meaningless. This opposing factor is the idea of film theory and criticism as an art, an art that is inherently dependent on other arts: it is the art of re-articulating art. This means that, by reviewing a film, you aren't just saying (or, at least, your only aim as a film critic or theorist shouldn't be to say) that a film is good or bad. A good critic/theorist will tell you why; they will translate the text of a film into a new art (the essay) through which it can be seen differently. Most obviously, this occurs when a film is explained and its meanings revealed. More subtly, however, this occurs when someone tells you why they like a film.

Not knowing what to say about Amélie meant I didn't know what I could explain about it, or even how I could articulate what I like about it. This points us to the fact that a great film is different from a favourite film. There is a quality in favourite films that is defined by resonation: they speak to us in a very personal way. With some 'great films' - examples of this for me would be anything by Godard - you can see why people say they're great, but just don't feel it (and maybe that feeling forces you to call bullshit on other people's claims). Other great films hit you and you can say a lot about them, but, you still don't hold them in the same category as other films. These other films may not be truly great - though they can be - but what often unifies them is your response: I just really like it. To delve deeper than this is then difficult; it may take a long time, or it may take thoughts and an ability to articulate that you're not sure you have access to.

I've attempted to get over this hurdle with The Shining, Cinderella, Goodfellas, Au Hasard Balthazar, 8 1/2, Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, etc (some of my favourite films). With the likes of Sunrise, we spoke in terms of film theory as to articulate what it is that makes me like the film. This is what we'll do today with Amélie and in conjuncture with a theoretical framework that I've been working through on other essays: objective and subjective impressionism. (If you've not read those essays, click here; you will find it difficult to understand this post otherwise).

As implied with the end of a discussion on objective impressionism, these two concepts interact with one another in a plethora of complex ways. With objective impressionism being about the building of symbols and subjective impressionism being about the building of characters, one of the core conflicts that emerges between the two techniques regards what is turned into a character and what is turned into a symbol. There is then a topic that we have thus far avoided when discussing these two kinds of impressionism that is best outlined with this clip:

With Luxo Jr. the animators at Pixar definitely prove that objects can be more than symbols: they can be characters. As a result, Luxo Jr. goes beyond mere personification, anthropomorphisation or objective impressionism; this is a study in subjective impressionism as the illusion of personality and consciousness is embedded into a computerised lamp; and consciousness is not merely modelled or implied because we see the lamp as a character. Pixar were far from the first to do this. The whole concept of animation shows us that consciousness can be cinematically implied through drawings. And this is the most fundamental difference between animation and live-action; live-action is the transformation of live objects into plasticity (celluloid or code) then back into life whilst animation takes lifeless objects, transforms them into plasticity and then brings them to life. Recognising this basic idea leads us to the conclusion that objects can be subjects, but also implies that maybe subjects can be objects.

In this shot - in the entirety of Wolf Of Wall Street even - is Margot Robbie's character a subject or an object? This is a question that many theorist have asked before when evaluating the representation of females in cinema. Most famously, Laura Mulvey asked this in the 1970s in developing her theory of "the male gaze". This phenomena is commonly referred to as objectification; the turning of a subject into an object. In the scene depicted above, it is clear that Margot Robbie plays an object of desire. There is a debate to be had on if her character turns herself into an object for the sake of her own aims. However, those who refute this will suggests that the manner in which this is shot, or will even suggest that the existence of this scene in the context of this film, is indicative of objectification and the satisfaction of the male gaze.

In the context of Scorsese's film, I can see idea of the male gaze and objectification functioning, but, not as simply or with such unethical intent as others would suggest. This is an issue with these theories; they often aren't nuanced enough and so can lead to the unnecessary blanket dismissal of films. I would suggest that this has much to do with the politicisation of cinema - something of quite a dead end, more so in regards to film theory and criticism than film production, in my opinion. However, it can be important to recognise objectification and the male gaze as theories when we discuss cinema. When it comes to objective and subjective impressionism, this is an inevitability because there is this inherent phenomena within the theory that recognises that objects can be turned into subjects and subjects into objects.

To get into the meat of this essay, what I am going to do today is explain part of why I like Amélie in regards to this tension between objective and subjective impressionism. I've chosen this film because it holds my all-time favourite character (Amélie herself) and is a study, a little like The Wizard of Oz, of object-human relations. Thus, not only is a large part of this film designed around subjects being represented objectively, but it holds a figure, a female, that you may suggest I only like because I, a male, get to stare at and fantasise about.

The best part of this film to concentrate on is then the game that Jeunet plays as he introduces his characters: what they like and what they don't like. Jeunet had, many years before Amélie, made a short that explores exactly this with Dominique Pinon. As in Amélie, he used many of his own likes and dislikes to characterise a subject through personal details. However, we can question here if Jeunet is actually building a character, or if he's defining them too objectively. After all, would you be satisfied with someone defining you by your dislike of cabbage, tire screeches and the line of dirt that is left as you sweep mess into a dust pan as well as your like of Tupperware, an alphabetised shelf of books and being able to recognise your warm toes by wiggling them in socks you stopped realising were on your feet. And before you answer, do you still appreciate this after recognising that the novelty of such an idea is mainly predicated upon the fact that these likes and dislikes are often shared quite universally and so mainly indicate who you are by who other people think they are and the attributes they like to see in others?

If we take a look at Amélie herself we see that she dislikes things such as rudeness, people not looking where they're driving in old Hollywood movies and having sex as well as the fact that she likes cracking crème brûlée, skipping stones, plunging her hand into a sack of grain and a meek man with one arm. All of her likes paint her as a quirky character, but are all very understandable. Her dislikes, too, are understandable. However, what about the idea that she doesn't have a boyfriend and abstains from sex? You could argue that Jeunet is only playing this game to use Audrey Tautou as an object that he dresses up with a few of his own personal quirks whilst putting her in an unrealistic position of idolisation by having one of her defining factors be her dislike of sex. This seemingly is emphasised, somewhat ironically, by the romantic side of the movie: Amélie falls in love with a weird guy who says almost nothing during the entirety of the movie. When we come to this final scene...

... are we then merely looking at an empty, silent shell of a man and an equally silent shell of a woman that is filled, somewhat, with a man's personality? Is the whole point of this movie to imagine Amélie (Jeunet, a man, disguised as a woman) falling in love with ourselves (the shell that Mathieu Kassovitz represents)? Does this whole movie function upon objectification, the male gaze and the fulfilment of masturbatory male fantasies?

If you love this movie like I do, you may be screaming "NO!", or questioning your entire being in this moment. But, the fact is: the answer to all of these questions is basically yes. However, you don't have to question your entire existence as a consequence.

The ingenious nature of Mulvey's theories - and much of feminist theory in general - is that they are based in truth. There are then obvious truths that feminists pick up on, such as the undeniable oppression of women through violence, bars from votes and so on. There are also more subtle truths that, in the manner they are pointed out, become half-truths or lies. Mulvey's theory of the male gaze is largely representative of just this. In such, there are many instances in movies or entire films that are clearly designed to satisfy male fantasies through objectification; you have a bottomless pool of this in pornography. The male gaze is undeniably evident in other movies - an obvious example most people pick up on being Transformers. However, Mulvey uses psychoanalytical theory unreasonably, unjustly and unethically by turning Freudian theory into a "political weapon" (a direct quote from her most famous essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema). The very idea of a political weapon that uses subconscious thought as ammunition should set off very loud alarms. This idea can in fact be seen as a highly dubious form of objectification; people (men) become entities that are defined by a very simple subconscious and are supposed to be attacked politically. Freudian theory, largely reserved for private, highly qualitative (predicated on depth and getting to know a subject in intimate detail) therapy sessions or introspection, being turned into politics in such a way is quite absurd.

We are then left with a conundrum. If what Mulvey is saying is true, but seemingly nonsense (potentially damaging - more likely spite and irrationality-inducing - political nonsense) upon closer inspection, how are we to confront a film such as Amélie that may be described in her terms?

The answer is, of course, implicit: with the subject of this essay. It is then true that Amélie is a shell that is characterised by a man with quirks that aren't actually so quirky. However, we need not describe this phenomena cynically with "the male gaze" or "objectification", rather, we can discuss Amélie in terms of how we may actually feel about the film, in terms of cinema, and with a less conspiratorial tone, with objective and subjective impressionism. Before jumping straight towards this conclusion, however, we should take some time to further explore these frameworks of thinking.

The crux of the male gaze theory is the recognition of the function of human desire and attraction of the sexual and non-sexual kind in all human interaction; its purpose is then to describe bad perceptions (male perceptions) that lead to bad interactions (male-lead interactions) through cinema.

A fact that all societies are predicated on is that people like who they know and who appears to be positive in some manner (who appears as if they must be likeable). There would then be no such thing as culture or communities if people didn't define themselves by their similarities and differences with others. These ideas of culture, or a nationhood, or humanity, are conceptual cornerstones of human relations that stop us (most of the time) stealing from and murdering one another. These ideas themselves lead to conflict, theft and murder when people recognise others and objects and 'the other'. However, issues such as these are also resolved by the same mechanism with which they're sparked. If we look to WWII for example, we see that one of the consequences of devastation catalysed by nationalism was the founding of the European Union whose main priority was giving the people who lived in Europe a more direct sense of connection to one another through trade, law and so on. Another example would be the basic idea of humanity; by recognising the humanity in others, peace is often found.

We should stop, however, to question this idea of 'humanity'. What does this mean? Is it not just a label without the nuance that defines us all by someone else's ideals? This is the primary problem with the thought process behind objectification: we can't recognise everyone as a true individual; we have enough trouble getting to know ourselves, let alone others. Perception is then, in this context, best defined by Saussure's theory of the signifier and signified. In investigating the construction of meaning, Saussure describes objects in the world as signifying a concept. The concept, the idea of humanity, is separate from the object or subjects (the human). This is an inevitable outcome of the way in which we think; we always see things as objects that potentially bear some relation to everything else. If we saw everything as an individual subject, then nothing could be: there couldn't be a cup, nor the cup, there could only be this specific thing in front of me that is colour X, height X, weight X, etc. In fact, we can't even talk about categories and numbers because they can never be specific enough; the cup has to weigh X.XXXXXXXX... grams, and it must fit into the colour spectrum to X.XXXXXXXXX... degrees. With everything being defined by a infinite set of possibilities, there can be nothing. Thus, we have to reach a point where we accept a certain degree of 'objectification'.

This idea speaks directly to the previous paragraph in which we discussed attraction and desire; we have to judge the world and then act. Thus, we can't just be humans as that is not a specific enough label for you, for example, to call out to your friend in the street, "Hey, Human!". However, this doesn't mean that the idea of humanity should be done away with; this idea, as implied, is what many of the best aspects of society and law are built upon. The idea of grand collectives as well as individuals has to co-exist; objectification always comes hand-in-hand with subjectification. Thus, no one is ever a true subject and no one is ever a true object.

When we further apply this framework of thinking to people and human interaction, we will see that we unconsciously define people by their humanity, their gender, their hair colour, their race, their height, etc. Moreover, we are often attracted to those that we like - or at least think we will like - as determined by our biology, temperament and the vast complexity of our psychology. Whilst this is true, we often pick and choose what objective attributes of a person matter most in a given context to decide how to react to them. For example, we can always recognise that people were once babies. Just because we can do this, should we when, for instance, we are talking to a friend about our work problems, when we are in a romantic situation with a loved on, when someone is breaking into our house? If the answer is no, then we are admitting that we don't want people to be subjects; we need them to be objects of a certain situation to understand, and interact with, them. In each of these instance, for example, a person becomes an object of comfort, romance or danger. We are more complex than this and so can think of them with greater nuance, but they partly become an archetype.

In delving into all of this, I am not suggesting that Mulvey or any other theorists do not understand, or haven't considered, any of this. Mulvey critiques much of what we have talked about (I infer) on the grounds that some archetypes aren't useful. However, the core problem with language such as "the male gaze" and "objectification" is that it comes loaded with critique and some degree of truth, but doesn't answer specific questions. Thus, you cannot extract the means of investigating films on a spectrum with concepts of objectification and the male gaze. Because these two ideas are often used as political weapons that bear a deep pool of negative connotations, as soon as the male gaze or objectification are sensed, there is the implication that it must be attacked and destroyed. As a result, the complex realities of the world are recognised and then simplified. We see this directly with the idea of male perception and the disembodied evil patriarchy. All males are individuals and thus their perception is infinitely complex; there is then obviously more to the male gaze than power and patriarchal satisfaction, but this is certainly not implied with the theory.

Let us now, however, stop defining frameworks of thinking and get down to the crux of their expressions. As said, feminist theories essentially attempt to identify what kinds of archetypes are harmful (objectification) and thus attempt to outline how they are projected (the male gaze). Nonetheless, these theories have the potential to become tyrannical by virtue of their simplicity and political edge. What I am implying by suggesting that we replace the way in which we think of these terms with "objective impressionism" and "subjective impressionism" is that we can recognise the complexity of human interaction (which is predicated, for good reason, on objectification) and the complexity of human thought (which has much to do with recognising desired similarities and differences) without useless political weapons.

As we have so far discussed, objects can become subjects through subjective impressionism just like subjects can become objects through objective impressionism. This means that objects can be turned into characters and subjects into symbols. This is incredibly important in cinema as it allows for the building of animated figures, but, more importantly, archetypes.

Archetypes are integral to all storytelling as they mimic life not as it is, but how it is perceived. As we have already discussed, we see people in terms of paradigms; you can be a tall, ginger, Australian male. Without these labels, we can't interact. The most sophisticated of these labels are archetypes: tyrannical fathers, oedipal mothers, evil clowns, bossy short people, etc. There isn't a limit to the number of archetypes that can exist, but there is a more limited set that are universally recognised and recycled in stories across the world. This is what makes legends, mythology, folk tales and theological stories so prevalent across centuries and millennia. There is thus a reason for the most prevalent archetypes that is deeply embedded into human history. Because of their implicit profundity and truth that has been founded and moulded over countless lifetimes, we have to be very careful when analysing core archetypes with critique.

That said, if we recognise that objective impressionism applied to subjects creates archetypes, we should also recognise that a sensation comes along with that; the symbolic subject, the archetype, will make us feel a certain way if they are a strong symbol. Let us then take a look at this example again...

If we use the language of this essay and not that of feminist film theory, we can say that, through objective impressionism, Scorsese turns Naomi into an archetype here: the sexual vixen. Thus, she is using her body and sexuality to lure Jordan into a trap that turns out to be marriage. Understanding the vixen to be a fox, we can understand that it is sly. The slyness of the fox does not make it evil, it makes it smart. However, the smart fox will inadvertently exploit the stupidity of the rabbit that falls into its trap.

Showing an understanding of this, we are then given brilliant scenes such as this by Scorsese in which the fox in Naomi outsmarts the fox in Jordan, essentially making him seem like a weak rabbit. So, whilst Jordan's fox has a small win in this scene when he recognises the camera, he is the long-term loser that is played at his own game. And this is the paradigm of Jordan and Naomi's relationship: he is the idiot that loses everything whilst she gets away relatively unharmed. The fox and the brute within Jordan takes his swings and eats chunks out of the world, but doesn't win the game he set out to. Naomi is ultimately a brilliant archetypal sexual vixen because of the power that we feel her to command in both of the depicted scenes.

However, still using objective impressionism as our main theory, we could suggest that Naomi is not a good archetype because she is too simple and does not exude any quality that emotionally effects us. Thus, we could suggest that this...

... isn't Scorsese building a core and powerful archetype, rather, he is recycling an empty caricature. And this (whilst I don't personally agree with it, but can nonetheless see the grounds of the argument) is the strongest and most rounded argument that you can make in favour of The Wolf Of Wall Street being a misogynist movie. This argument stems from the fact that the archetype, which is supposed to be an expression of meaning and truth, is being used falsely: it doesn't represent any truth, rather, it constructs a fantasy that is disingenuous and possibly harmful. If we come to the example that all people will use to exemplify objectification and the satisfaction of the male gaze, we come to this...

Why is Megan Fox in this movie? Seemingly, all she does is 'stimulate' the audience and characters. Bay, in this scene, is using objective impressionism to turn her into an archetype of feminine desire. There is, however, no profound reason underlying this archetype just as there is no real reason for the characters' existence in the movie; she almost teaches Sam about love and commitment, but that ends up being a very weak sub-plot. Because there isn't an archetype constructed via objective impressionism we have an objectified caricature. There is a debate on how harmful this really is, but, we can all admit that this is a dumb moment in a dumb movie.

It should be noted that sometimes this paradigm is embedded into the conventions of a genre, for example, the exploitation film, and so comes with the rules of the game - meaning there is more debate to be had. But, nonetheless, we should now have a way of accurately and qualitatively describing what is wrong with the scenes depicted.

In my opinion, this is what good film criticism looks like (at least in comparison to our previous criticism of The Wolf of Wall Street that uses feminist language). This is because, if we see Naomi to be a bad character, we can express this as a symptom of bad filmmaking (disingenuous and weak writing, direction, etc.). Using feminist language such as objectification, you are suggesting that your dislike of Naomi indicates attributes that are symptomatic of culture, society and the subconsciousnesses of individuals. Whilst I would never suggest that people shouldn't take this approach, I certainly believe that your argument has an awful lot to live up to if it is going to take on the world or a whole group of people. What's more, for the way in which this language is designed, it's going to be incredibly difficult to be articulate, accurate or convincing. In the case of The Wolf of Wall Street, I then can't see feminist language being applied successfully. However, if your aim is to suggest (even from a feminist perspective) that Naomi is not a good character, you can easily articulate this with reference to objective impressionism, or even just the concept of archetypes and  storytelling tropes. To go another route and blame the faults of the movie on society, you show an understanding of cinema that is 2-dimensional and purely political. Art transcends politics just like individual thought transcends ideology by virtue of its connection to the complexity of the human mind.

To come back to Amélie, we shall have to recognise that objective and subjective impressionism can function simultaneously within characters; Amélie is part-symbol, part-character. And whilst Amélie may be a particularly evident example of this, I think this can be argued with all characters. After all, aren't all people part-subject, part-object in our perception?

When we come back to the questionable nature of Jeunet's characterisation through the like and dislike game he plays, we can accept here that he is objectively analysing a character to not only suggest their humanity through the fact that her quirks may not be so quirky, but also to construct a part-archetype.

If we come back to her most questionable attribute - the fact that she abstains from sex - we can see this in the light of archetype construction. In many respects, Amélie represents introversion and fear. She is a figure of subtle tragedy; we easily forget that her mother died before her very eyes, that she has never had a friend because of her neurotic parents and so has spent many years in her father's immaterial shadow. Amélie then interfaces with the world with both intimate understanding and crippling aversion; she wants to be close to people, but cannot manage to bridge social gaps. This is why she laughs during sex: it is awkward and she doesn't have the ability to submerge herself in sexual or romantic emotion because of the way she grew up.

This internal conflict of Amélie's defines the entire structure of the narrative: her journey is based on helping others as she does not know how to help herself. Her journey is often markered by material objects - a book full of photos; a lost letter; keys to apartments; video tapes; a gnome - as a result of this. Amélie then interacts with most of the people around her through objects as a manifestation of her core internal conflict: not knowing how to get close to people. Simultaneously, most of the people around her cannot be handled in direct terms; her father, for example, won't listen to her, but he will pay attention to a travelling gnome (which is a highly ironic symbol of his wife). The entirety of this movie is ultimately about Amélie attempting to pierce the shells of others as to allow her own personal bubble to pop; this is a movie about opening up to the world. She is then an archetype of subtle transformation, humble introspection and careful romance, and with her as the heart of the movie, it is clear why it is so touching.

Beyond this, Amélie is in fact a movie all about objective and subjective impressionism. Not only do we fall in love with Amélie as both an archetype - a shell defined by themes - but we also see her as an individual subject. Furthermore, Amélie looks to the people around herself as objects and archetypes and struggles in interfacing with them as true subjects; she is just a lonely, cowardly girl and her love interest is just an idea; a stranger who collects photographs and could never like her the way she likes him.

This is then a grand moment of truth. Without words, she takes the reigns of the relationship and presses her lips to the parts of Nino that she (maybe) assumes are most touching and romantic, but only in the hope that he will reciprocate. When he mimics her strange, but entirely genuine, gesture, her bubble of dread and anxiety pops: she becomes a real person.

Like all great romances, Amélie is about the completion of the individual. Jeunet then constructs part-subjects, part-objects, part-characters, part-archetypal symbols, so that there is a balance throughout the film; so that we feel as if we can step inside the characters, but also watch them act as genuine people. This is a masterful execution of objective-subjective impressionism and, because the movie speaks to me on such a personal and resonant level, I am thwarted by the presence of the object-subject, Amélie. It is difficult to define what she appears to be to me beyond this, but suffice to say that she represents an abstract idea of everything you could want from a person and more in regards to this movie's themes; she is an awe-inspiring archetype and a loveable character.

I think many of our favourite characters can be described in this way; they are constructed with just enough objective and subjective impressionism so that they aren't completely symbolic, but also aren't completely individual and distant from ourselves. This would also be true of real life; we don't just fall for people, but who they are in contrast to who we think they are. To only see a person as they are is to see them without potential; you do not see them as a real person. To only see a person as potential is to see them without acceptance; you do not see them as a fallible being. Finding a balance between these two positions keeps you in a loving relationship with someone, able to see them as fallible and full of potential, idol and human, object and subject, just as it keeps you in a relationship with a great character.

All of my favourite movies can be partly explained with the same theory; Sunrise, The Shining, Queen, Goodfellas, Dogtooth, 8 1/2, The Prince and The Showgirl, etc. In all of these movies, archetypes with the perfect balance between objective being and subjective being are created in the context of a greater narrative that functions with impressionism working in tandem with themes, plotting, etc. I love these movies because they embody everything I could want from cinema and more. Amélie sits among the highest ranks of all of these, and all because of Jeunet's objective-subjective impressionism.

To bring things towards a close, I can only end by asking you what you think of all we've covered today. What do you think of the language proposed by feminist theory? What do you think of the terms objective and subject impressionism? What are your favourite movies/characters and why?

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