Charm offensive

Film - Philip Kerr is won over by the romantic comedy that has seduced the French

Ever since the year 1206, when King John lost lands amounting to half of France to King Philippe II, the English have judged France to be a country much too good to be wasted on the French. Perhaps, as a result of this, we routinely denigrate the French as exasperatingly self-centred and frivolous, even rude; we lament that they seem to be impervious to sentiment, or incapable of being moved to greater demonstrations of loyalty to their liberators and wartime allies.

The apparent perfidy of the French, however, reveals as much about us as it does about them, because the real reason the English (and, by extension, the Americans, who pleasingly seem to find the French even more frustrating than we do) dislike the French so intensely is because they are so very logical. To that extent, the French are a bit like cats.

Now, a cat will always do what is best for the cat. If a cat finds a better deal on offer at some other home, it will leave you without a moment's regret. Typically French, n'est-ce pas? Dogs, however, demonstrate rather more lumpish character qualities, such as loyalty and endurance, even when it clearly profits them not at all to do so. And isn't that just like the British? No wonder we find it so difficult to get along with our nearest neighbours.

Witness the different reactions of the French and the British to the destruction of the World Trade Center. Tony Blair, like a faithful Labrador, bounds up to George Bush, licking his hand, and waiting to have his ears folded, while the allegedly ex-Trotskyist Lionel Jospin is much more equivocal about supporting the US: "Our humane, political and functional solidarity with the United States does not deprive us of our sovereignty and freedom to make up our own minds." A true cat. And a true Frenchman, to boot.

As personalities, dogs are much too open ever to exert a fascinating influence on anyone other than the J R Ackerleys of this world. But cats - and, by extension, the French - always attend to the imperatives of their own logic and, as a corollary, never fail to fascinate the rest of us. We may not always like their logic, but where we do, and because logic frightens the English - after all, as Witt-genstein said, "logic takes care of itself" - we often prefer to call it charm.

Amelie is a very charming film; but it is also a very logical one. Indeed, from the very first frames of the film, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen), the story presented seems so deterministic, so overtly causal, that I thought to find the name David Hume in the credits for screenplay. Causation may or may not be the cement of the universe, but there's no getting away from its importance here.

Amelie (Audrey Tautou), a dead ringer for the novelist Polly Samson, is a beautiful but shy waitress in a Paris cafe who enjoys life's smaller sensual pleasures, such as cracking the crust of a creme brulee, or immersing her hand in a sack full of grain. One day, shocked by news on the radio of the untimely death of "Laydee Dee", Amelie drops the heavy stopper from a bottle of perfume, which loosens a tile on the wall of her bathroom, which leads her to discover a 40-year-old tin box/time capsule containing the toys and assorted small treasures of a small boy. How, she wonders, would such a person feel to be reunited with his childhood? Amelie resolves to find the man who was that boy - one Dominique Bretodeau - to reunite him with his box and, if this small selfless act turns out well, to improve the lives of all those around her, in accordance with the imperatives of her own peculiar Gallic logic.

Happiness continues to elude her, however, until she finds a mysterious photograph album containing dozens of machine-made passport prints that have been rejected, or even partly destroyed, by their original purchasers. Fascinated with this ephemeral montage of seemingly unrelated pictures - this mirrors the photographic style of the film, which includes cutting together seemingly disparate shots to produce a shock or attraction, in a manner that recalls the early Soviet film-makers - Amelie sets out on an unpredictably convoluted path through the streets of a seedy- looking Montmartre to meet the album's handsome owner and, perhaps, her own romantic destiny.

As I say, it's all very charming, often amusing, and there is hardly a dull moment, so that one is even inclined to forgive Jeunet for repeating himself: the scene in Delicatessen where the butcher's house seems to move in rhythm to the sound of a couple making love - a typically French variation on the butterfly effect, described by the chaos theorist Edward Lorenz - is reprised here in the cafe, with hilarious results.

Which prompts me to note that Amelie is not quite as good as Delicatessen. There was a black, surreal quality to that particular film, now ten years old, which recalled the best of Luis Bunuel. But this is still an ingeniously funny film, as well as being a romantic one. A good date movie, and certainly a contender for this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

Go and see it; the seven million Frenchmen and women who already have can't be wrong. Now that's the kind of logic that the English can understand.

Amelie (15) is released nationwide on 5 October

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, What would you do?