Visually stylish 'Amélie' is lit up by sprightly performances

It's been a vintage year for French imports. If an art movie like "Va Savoir" doesn't tempt you, "Amélie" is arriving with two hours of sheer eye candy. It's not the deepest movie of the season, but it has sprightly performances and cinematic style to spare.

Amélie is a Paris waitress who discovers a long-lost box of childhood knickknacks in her apartment. She tracks down its owner, bashfully hides while he savors the windfall, then spies on him as his life turns in new directions as a result of what she's done.

She knows she's being nosy, but she enjoys the experience so much that she wants to repeat the thrill. Soon she's a full-fledged benefactress, bubbling with ideas for helping folks who never heard of her. This would be fine if not for two facts: Her plans don't always work as intended, and many of her beneficiaries would rather be left alone.

The payoff that Amélie enjoys is a chance to satisfy her insatiable curiosity about Paris and the people in it. She also likes spicing up her own drooping life - which gets considerably less droopy when she encounters a mysterious man unlike any she's met before.

"Amélie" was directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose name brings either delight or despair to French-film connoisseurs. An ambitious artist with great technical skill, he's never satisfied with a scene until he's directed it half to death - flinging his camera in all directions, cutting his shots into finely tuned fragments, bathing faces and settings in floods of expressive light.

The results are dazzling to look at, but they often seem oddly dehumanized. Watching films like "The City of Lost Children" and the early "Delicatessen," you can't help thinking he cares more about the possibilities of his equipment than the dreams of his characters.

"Amélie" marks a positive step in this regard. Its lighthearted story balances Jeunet's overeager style. Better still, Audrey Tautou's star performance is amiable enough to cut through any amount of cinematic fuss.

The barometer for whether you'll enjoy "Amélie" is whether you liked "Moulin Rouge" last summer. If snappy visuals, tangy colors, mood-drenched scenery, and a good-hearted heroine make you as happy as a box of Parisian chocolates, it's definitely for you.

Rated R; contains a modest amount of sexual material.

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