Best known for his grim fairy tales, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet ("The City of Lost Children") tries his hand at romantic comedy in "Amélie." When it works -- which is most of the time -- the results are delightful beyond compare. Infectious whimsy and tender-heartedness pervade the story of Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou), a magnanimous young Parisian who compensates for her love-deprived upbringing by surreptitiously meddling in the lives of others.
Amélie works at a cafe named The Two Windmills, and the allusion to Don Quixote is no accident. A childlike sense of justice motivates her sneaky good deeds (and the prank punishments she visits upon a mean neighborhood grocer). Her first success is in returning a box of childhood mementos to its owner after four decades of separation. From there, she's off on a course of stealthy social redress that pays especial heed to the dispossessed and downtrodden. In her daydreams, she imagines herself the "grandmother of outcasts, Madonna of the unloved."
Jeunet and his co-writer, Guillaume Laurant, plot Amélie's odyssey with sophisticated, adult wit -- a foundation the director then coats with an appealing layer of fairy dust. Rapid-fire narration frames a script that frequently swerves into charming fantasy sequences. Characters are introduced via funny montages that enumerate their likes and dislikes. (Think of it as backstory by personal ad.)
The most powerful device at Jeunet's disposal, though, is Tautou's face, which has the silent-movie expressiveness of Johnny Depp's Chaplin homages. Her impish grin announces Amélie's latest scheme, and the wondering eyes that peer out from under her short-short bangs draw us in as co-conspirators.
All of these elements converge so wondrously in the film's first half that the letdown is magnified when the story downshifts into low gear and never fully recovers. The crush Amélie develops on an equally odd young man (he collects snapshots discarded by photo-booth customers) poses a challenge to her comfortable solitude, and she vacillates between chasing him and shrinking in fear from the idea of a romantic entanglement. Her reluctance is wholly in character, but not much fun to watch. Jeunet and Laurant haven't figured out how to depict emotional malaise without surrendering their film itself to inertia. For better and worse, Amélie doesn't merely observe its heroine; it is her.