Let’s Talk About Amélie

In 1999, a doozy of a movie called Passport To Paris starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen was released (err, on straight-to-VHS) and it instantly became my favorite movie, ever. The movie follows the same formula as most Olsen Twins movies did – the twins leave their “boring” life and venture off to another country where they get into shenanigans and meet cute boys who ultimately help them solve a crime. You know, the typical teenage girl stuff. I remember renting the movie from Blockbuster so many times that it was a better investment  for my mom to just purchase the VHS for me.

The movie is about Melanie and Allyson Porter, two twins in junior high who are devasted when they learn they have to miss their Spring Break school dance to go to France to visit their grandfather, an ambassador to the city of Paris. Upon arrival, they get upset when they discover their grandpa is strict, so they run off exploring the city of Paris with two cute French boys, Jean and Michel. They ride Vespa’s, eat calamari, and get into a baguette-sword fight in front of the Eiffel Tower. The typical tourist stuff.

I would watch the movie every day after school, drooling over Jean and wishing I had the same wardrobe as the twins. I idolized them as a child, and more specifically wanted to visit all the same places that they did. But Passport to Paris was the ultimate – I became infatuated with the city of Paris, and as soon as I was given access to the Internet years later, did all my research on my future trip to Paris (being 12 years old, I had no actual plans to go to Paris).

In high school, I took French as my language of choice. When I was old enough to handle an oven in the kitchen, I began baking French madeleines and pain au chocolat. I studied maps of France, trying to find my way from the Louvre to Shakespeare and Company (it’s a fifteen-minute walk, in case you’re wondering).

And then when I was sixteen, I reached the pinnacle of my French obsession. I saw the 2001 film, Amélie. If you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve definitely heard of it, or seen a still from it, or know someone who loves it.

Amélie, (known in France as Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, or “The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain”) tells the story of a young girl named Amélie Poulain who experiences a tragedy in her young life and is conditioned to a simple life of quietude. Her eccentric mother thought young Amélie had a heart condition as a child, so homeschooled her. To cope with her lonely life, Amélie used her imagination and mischievous personality to create fun in her life. After her mother tragically dies when Amélie is little, her father withdrew further and Amélie became independent.

A young Amélie Poulain.

She works at a small Parisian café as a waitress and lives alone with her cat. But on the day that Diana, Princess of Wales dies, Amelie discovers a small box in her apartment that belonged to a man decades before. She becomes determined to find the man and deliver the box to him, filled with little treasures from his childhood. This changes the course of Amélie’s life, as she begins filling her simple life with small gestures that have big effects for all the people around her. She simultaneously plays a game of cat-and-mouse with a man she loves, and runs around the streets of Paris mostly going unseen.

It’s hard to describe exactly what the movie is about – if I were to put it simply, it’s about “a girl in Paris.” The film is so beautifully shot, and the character of Amélie was exactly who I wanted to be growing up – strong-willed, independent, and a little mischievous.

Amélie looks over the city of Paris.

I absorbed this movie. I watched it over and over, but making time out of my schedule to invest everything I could into this movie. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I laid in bed late at night with the covers over my head, headphones in, taking in every second of movie that I could. The movie served as a beacon of hope for a younger me, showing me a city that I had always loved, but never actually been to.

In an article for The Guardian, writer Phil Hoad explains exactly why Amélie has had the lingering popularity it’s had in the almost twenty years since it’s release. The film has developed a cult-following (a cult I am gladly a member of). He explains that despite the “subtitle-phobic American market” (a topic I have written about which you can read here), Amélie transcends language barriers because of its charm. According to Hoad, the film was “at heart an old-school export picture – packing up iconic French culture (the Sacré-Coeur, Renoir, bistros, crème brûlée) as dutifully as an open-top bus tour.” If I really think about it, Amélie was my introduction to, and perhaps my reason for loving foreign movies.

A few years later I was talking to a friend who had gone to Paris over Christmas break, expressing my excitement for her (and hiding my own jealousy). She started talking about how she thought she has Paris Syndrome, and I thought she was referring to how much she missed the city. I was surprised when she said that she was a bit disappointed in her visit. Come to find out, Paris Syndrome is a very real thing.

Paris Syndrome is a psychological condition experienced almost exclusively by Japanese tourists who are disappointed when the city of Paris does not live up to their expectations. The condition can be referred to as an extreme case of culture shock, and has been known to cause symptoms like acute delusional state, hallucinations, anxiety, dizziness, and sweating.

French psychiatric journal Nervure explains that Paris Syndrome is a result of the extreme disappointment that tourists can experience when the exceedingly-high expectations of Paris with is fashion, romance, and food do not live up to the hype. More often than not, tourists are met with rude customer service and confusing public transport. Studies and medical journals have linked Paris Syndrome to Japanese tourists because of their known infatuation for Paris, but I think this probably goes beyond just Japanese tourists.

The conversation with my friend after returning home from her trip made me think about our perceptions of foreign places and how we create expectations that only live up in the movies. And though the conversation left me feeling down, Paris is still on the top of my “places to visit” list.

I recently re-watched Amélie, and found that it still holds up for me, giving me that same feeling it did upon my first viewing – it made me excited about, well, life.

Do I expect my first trip to Paris to be like the movies? I guess not. But as the saying goes, Mary-Kate, Ashley, Amélie and I will “always have Paris.”

Have you ever experienced “Paris Syndrome” in your real life? Did you go somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit and was disappointed that it didn’t live up to the hype? Let me know in the comments below:

And check out some of my other favorite movies that take place in the City of Love:

Zazie Dans le Metro (1960)

La vie d’Adele (2013)

 À bout de souffle (1960)


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