Originally written for suite101 and published on 01/03/09, now hosted over at Xomba.
The world inhabited by Amélie Poulain is not like the one the rest of us live in. The colours are brighter, the coincidences odder, and every little sound speaks volumes.
In common with much of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s work Amélie is a whimsical and charmingly odd tale. Although less macabre than his collaborations with Marc Caro, there is a certain undercurrent of dark humour that balances out the sweetness. If the imagery paints a comic book world for Amélie to inhabit, then it is the sound, which brings it to life.
Moments Out of Time
The use of sound is at its best when it is being employed to illustrate tiny moments such as our insights into the characters’ pleasures and peeves, and Amelie’s faintly absurd flights of fantasy. From the hiss of Georgette’s spray, through the rebellious pop of Joseph’s bubble-wrap, to the sublimely ridiculous array of orgasm noises in Amélie’s daydream.
The more important the moments being portrayed on screen are to the characters, the more detail seems to have been put into the sound. When Amélie is having her life-changing moment every sound is magnified. Not in an obvious, heavy-handed way, more in the way they would be in real life: where as one realises the significance of something, time seems to slow and every sound becomes clear and distinct.
Thus when Amélie finds the box that will change the course of her life, every sound from the chink of the tile coming loose, through the sound of her breath as she blows away the dust, to the creak of its hinges and the sound of the ridged edge of the photo as it catches on the box edge as she removes it. Every little sound is distinct, serving to emphasise the delight and excitement of discovery.
Photographs and Recorded Sounds
Photographs take on a central role in the course of the plot, especially those that have been forgotten or abandoned. However, recorded sound, especially out of context gives the film some of its most touching and surreal moments. Joseph, first Gina’s then Georgette’s spurned lover, records Gina’s laughter playing it back to taunt her.
Early in the film, there is a surreal scene in a metro station, where Amélie hears the sound of a distant old record playing. It echoes eerily down the green-tinted subway tunnels, sounding increasingly like some sort of ghost the closer she gets. The resolution of the scene is the discovery that the music is coming from an old gramophone sitting on the knees of an old blind man.
Whether he just likes the acoustics or if there is a deeper reason for his location and actions is never made clear. Yet here in a scene entirely devoid of either dialogue or voiceover the audience is told everything they need know about the film. This is a film about nostalgia, memory and love, a film that delights in the oddities of life and the notion that not everything has an explanation or even requires one.
Yann Tiersen’s Score and Frank Mettre’s Sound Mix
Much has been made of Yann Tiersen’s score for the film. For some it captures the whole feeling of the film, while for others it is simply uninspired genre music – too French for words. While the score does evoke a sense of nostalgia and old movies, the main purpose of the music seems to be to draw the audience into the film’s world and to keep reality from intruding painfully upon them.
The sound mix itself is bright and punchy, letting the music sweep the viewer up in the film’s world, and pulling back to reveal the tiny little sound touches that light up and augment the most tender and oddest moments of the film. It remains expressive and almost aggressive throughout, ensuring there is no chance of the flat, cliché-ridden soundtrack, which so many comedies are saddled with.