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Female and Male Spectatorship in the Movie Amelie

Released in 2001, Amelie became hugely successful with both critics and audiences. At first glance, the film involves a reversal of a romantic-comedy tradition used from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Four Weddings and a Funeral in which the central narrative is staged from the perspective of the male protagonist pursuing the female lead. Nonetheless the film continues to draw on many conventions used classically in Hollywood to delineate differences between the behaviour and sexualities of women. Such conventions demand a critique with feminist theories of spectatorship by Laura Mulvey etc. But, as Amelie has been so well-received by an arguably female-dominated audience, there remains a clear need to engage in both these accounts and a variety of responses to them, to account for the pleasures in watching the film.

As an entire film, Amelie is full of voyeurs, unattached individuals all looking at each other but never able to really make a connection. This obsessive gaze is taken as a signifier of a dysfunctional society, made up of isolated individuals. A range of characters take up this position Raymond Dufayel’s observations of Amelie as he compares her to a girl in his painting whose look he can’t capture, as well as the central narrative around Amelie’s oblique pursuit of Nino. As Amelie walks a blind man through the busy streets describing the surroundings to him, she points to an interlocking network of fixation and inattention: “there’s a baby watching a dog that’s watching the chickens!”

Even so, the themes of voyeurism are explored through a number of obvious, and obviously gendered, ways. Fetishist male sexualities are alluded to by the presence in the narrative of the sex shop/strip club. I will go on to argue that these scenes are not necessarily primed for the male gaze, but their primary function in the narrative is to provide a complete opposition to Amelie’s prudishness. Amelie is shocked and disappointed to discover that Nino works at the Porno Palace and almost considers that they are completely incompatible because of it. Director Jean-Pierre Geunet presents the inability to connect with real’ people as the reason behind celebrity fascinations a sub-narrative around the romanticism of Diana, Princess of Wales after her death runs beneath the central characters. How is this presented in terms of its relationship to theories of male/female spectatorship? Denzin writes that, at least for Hollywood:

“(the) contemporary female voyeur has fallen on hard times. Her gaze is still defined by the masculine eye, even as recent texts expose the limits of the male look and give women the power to gaze upon themselves and the male figure.” (139)

In her article, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ Laura Mulvey outlines the ways in which film reflects, and plays on, views of gender differences as constructed in wider society. These sex differences control the range of ways of looking and desiring that are available to men and to women. Thus, she sees mainstream cinema as reinforcing patriarchy through the ways that it codes the erotic. (113) Drawing on Freud, she argues that scopophilia, the pleasure in looking, has a controlling power; the real pleasure is seen as having the power to construct an other person as an object to be looked at. Despite scenes’ being played out manifestly on screen, mainstream cinema nonetheless caters for the voyeuristic fantasy as it naturalises the ways representations and narratives are constructed, and allows the audience to feel distanced. Lacan’s work on narcissism and the mirror stage’ is used to describe the fusion of the desire to look and the desire to be reflected. (114-5) Mulvey argues that men project their fantasies onto the image of the woman, who is styled in anticipation of this fantasy. The technologies of cinema are used to position woman as icon, flattened out’ by the focus on isolated features, whilst the subjective perception of the male protagonist is recreate through the use of realist techniques, invisible editing, deep focus, the movement of the camera to follow the actor. Thus man is the active owner of the gaze, whilst woman is the passive gazed-at. “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” (116)

In Subjectivity and Desire: An(other) Way of Looking,’ Mary Ann Doane takes a similar perspective of the way cinema encourages the viewer to identify a gendered distinction between subject/object:

The male figure seems more compatible with processes of narrativisation than the female figure. While the man comfortably adopts natural’ poses of activity and agency, the plotting’ of the female body is more difficultbut the transformation of the woman into spectacle is easy. (167)

Doane also discusses the ways in which female viewers have been catered for by mainstream cinema. She writes that women are stereotypically associated with an over-attachment and excessive emotional involvement with a text. They are thought to be more accepting than men are of the naturalisation of cinematic signs. She points out the propensity for films aimed predominately at women to be described in reviews as weepies,’ indicating that the genre is defined entirely by the emotional effect it is said to have on its audience. Though individual women in the audience may read a film in ways not simply dictated by the text, Doane is not optimistic about the ways in which a female audience in general may be addressed by the text, other than by being manipulated towards set emotional responses: “These are the tropes which enable the woman’s assumption of the position of subject’ of the gaze.” (163) Spectator theory has drawn heavily on psychoanalysis, for example that of Freud and Lacan. Lapsley and Westlake see la femme, the image of the beautiful woman, in Lacan’s terms of the objet a; the male fantasy seeks the image to fulfil the human sense of lack, but finds that these codes of femininity are only a masquerade “all these beautiful women are simulacra.” (188)

Work on voyeurism assumes that the voyeur is the active subject, obsessing over the passive object. But does Amelie really portray its protagonist as the subject?

The first shot of the adult Amelie takes place in The Two Windmills where she works as a waitress. She stands with her back to the camera, which walks’ slowly up to her; she turns her head in response to the camera as it reaches her and returns its gaze’ without any expression. It is a very seductive introduction to the character and the shot emphasises her elegance and femininity. Despite the focus of the narrative being on Amelie’s desiring gaze on Nino, I would certainly argue it is she who, at least in terms of classical codes, is presented to the viewer as to-be-looked-at. We see Amelie at private moments in her own home, while Nino, despite being spied upon by Amelie (and therefore the viewer), retains the dignity of only being seen in public, on the street or in the station, or at work. Nino is generally seen covered up by a loose hanging overcoat, and his posture tends to be hunched in comparison with Amelie’s normally open posture; in fact many scenes frame him slouching over the desk in the Porno Palace or bent double searching for discarded photos at the booths in the station. He tends to be lit in natural appearing light, while Tatou’s face is lit more brightly, forming a very clear, almost cartoon-like outline of her features to provide an iconic image that was easily recognisable on posters and merchandise. Shots of Nino alternate between the very long, establishing him within the narrative situation without focusing closely on his body, and the close ups of his face. At no point is the spectator led by the film text to gaze at the actor’s body in the same way as they are encouraged to gaze at Tatou though saying that the film does not appear to intentionally cater for the sexual female gaze does not mean that actual women in the audience do not look desiringly at Mathieu Kassovich!

Amelie herself is represented as barely experiencing sexual desire. She describes Nino to Dufayel as a boy she feels a connection with, and even when she comes to consider herself in love with him, her desire for greater closeness to him appears to be platonic. Amelie is described by the narrator as having cultivated a taste for small pleasures in substitution for sexual adventure; in the credit sequence, Amelie is shown as a young child enjoying a variety of sensuous pleasures; the fruit in the shots cherries that she wears as earrings, raspberries she sucks one by one off her fingers may be read as connoting her budding sexuality. Geunet accepts a stereotype of female sexuality as repressed and channelled instead into images of romance and the emotional ideal of love.

The scene in which Amelie discovers the little boy’s treasure box hidden in her apartment is interesting in the way that it casts the audience member as voyeur, prying into Amelie’s personal space. She is dressed in a flimsy nightgown; shots of her bare feet and legs emphasise her vulnerability. On finding the box she appears to become entirely focused on this, forgetting the news programme she was watching. The view that the audience is given seems an insight into an extremely personal and self-contained moment; this is emphasised when Amelie suddenly appears to become aware of the sound of the TV and quickly turns it off. The scene ends abruptly. Following the actress’s movements during the scene, it is clear that she is not facing the TV when she does this, so when she looks directly into the camera and points the remote control straight ahead of her, all she is switching off is our view of her.

Amelie identifies herself with the image of Diana, as the do-gooder, but also a beautiful object. Her good deeds require her invisibility, and being able to look without being seen. She stands next to Bretodeau in a bar, but becomes agitated when he speaks to her. Geunet implies criticism of the media hysteria around Diana’s death through the mise-en-scene, as newspapers can be seen with the melodramatic headlines Le horreur!’ A snide joke is also included in the script about the extent of the coverage of Diana’s good deeds as opposed to those of Mother Theresa, who died in the week after Diana:

Woman on newsstand: Such a tragedy, a real Princess, young and pretty for once.
Amelie: It’s OK if she’s old and ugly?
Woman: Sure. Look at Mother Theresa.

Lapsley and Westlake point out that the spectator can be endeared to, and identify with, different characters at different stages of the narrative; this point of central identification will also inevitably change the functions of other characters in the film. (192-3)

In her ethnographic work on female cinema fans, Jackie Stacey identifies a number of forms of identification that can be made between women watching films, and those starring in them. She characterises the main themes as those of devotion and worship, in which process the screen image is cast as other,’ and the pleasure derived is from seeing the difference between the film-world and the real world; the desire to become, in which audiences perceive a difference between their own experiences and those portrayed in the film, but are allowed by the film to fantasise about changing their lived reality to be more like the film; and identification and escapism, in which the spectator becomes immersed in the world as represented in the film and takes enjoyment from seeing her own reality represented on screen. (147-150)

Amelie often seems to confide in the viewer, exchanging glances with the camera, and with changes of expression while the other characters in the scene’s backs are turned. Most significantly, in the sex scene she is shown trying not to giggle and giving scornful looks to the man she is with.

Denzin discusses the often staunch moral stance of voyeur films, and writes that the voyeur has been seen by Hollywood as the individual symptom of a generally dysfunctional society. For him, films including Rear Window, and, featuring female voyeurs, Blue Velvet or Sex, Lies and Videotape, speak to the anomie of the society they comment upon; “In this world there are no neighbours, only strangers who live in the same buildings.” (119) The voyeuristic character is tragic, rarely comic or even particularly endearing:

the voyeur, as an already unstable person, embodies the fact that only the unstable person will be drawn to the underlife of societyunable to experience pleasure or happiness, they resort to looking and voyeurism as methods of producing pleasure.” (57)

Amelie follows this trend in the way that her character is introduced by the voiceover, as the emotionally, and sexually, repressed product of a miserable childhood. But the general tone of the film is far more optimistic and light-hearted than Denzin believes possible, and, as I will go on to argue, a certain sense of the underlife’ of society is portrayed as the only one worth knowing!

Denzin discussing a number of films in which the voyeuristic character is criticised or punished in the narrative for looking. Referring to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, in which the protagonist defends his position as voyeur on the grounds that only he can solve a murder mystery that is unfolding in his neighbourhood, Denzin argues that this logic is portrayed in cinema as false or unhealthy:

The compulsion to look is coupled, then, with the altruistic motive to help others in the name of justice. But this compulsion extends beyond the normal range of involvement in the lives of others. It becomes a mania, a fixation which borders on insanity. (55)

Amelie’s character can be compared to that of Jeffries in that she, too, imagines herself as the only one capable or willing to “fix other people’s messy lives,” and in punishing Collingnon for mistreating Lucien, she also takes on the role of vigilante. Her detachment is certainly criticised in the film, most notably by Dufayel, and her matchmaking attempts to make her colleague, Georgette, and customer, Joseph fall in love are ultimately doomed. Nonetheless, her own wishes are fulfilled with no real change in her behaviour. Dufayel is scathing of her fondness for stratagems’ and in the final scene, the video he sends her tells her to stop avoiding Nino “go and get him, for Pete’s sake!” but as it turns out there is no need for her to take action; her stratagems have paid off and he is already at her door.

I would argue that the characters presented as voyeurs Dufayel, Nino himself, Lucien, Collingnon’s senile old father who still remembers the names of local families from fifty years ago are those we are encouraged to sympathise with. Most obviously, Lucien operates in the archetypal role of the Fool, but to varying extents they all take this role of the individual who is berated by those around them but in fact has noticed things that others have not. The film draws on a cultural myth that those standing on the outside of mainstream society are those best able to comment meaningfully on it. The only exception to this is Joseph, whose romantic relationships all fail because of his jealousy. He is a very minor villain, and in the last scene he features in, he gets a minor come-uppance when another customer implies he will always be a failure. The difference between him and the other, more sympathetic characters is that he takes too emotionally involved a perspective on events in his life; instead the film praises the detached observational position of, say, Amelie and Dufayel, and the undiscriminating gaze of Lucien, who sees the wonder in the most everyday objects. Collingnon is the main villain of the film because he is the character least able to perceive what is beyond the conventional and the immediately apparent. He objectifies Lucien and is unable to see the true goodness of his character, so it is significant that Amelie punishes him by making him doubt his own perceptions of ordinary objects, changing his clocks, giving him foot cream for toothpaste and vice versa she brings him into a world in which he can no longer assume that the most familiar things around him are as he thought. Unlike Rear Window, which Denzin writes is “a study in misperceptions, an analysis of the trouble we get into when we misinterpret events in terms of our own preconceptions,” (122) the voyeurs in Amelie see the truths that less sentimental souls do not. Amelie is not misguided in feeling a connection with Nino; the film plays with the romantic idea of the lovers’ psychic link in the scene in The Two Windmills, in which Amelie predicts Nino’s moves; “he’s going to put the spoon down, dip his finger in the sugar, and turn around and speak to me.”

Reflexive codes in cinema, including the actor’s aside to the camera, disrupt conventions of realism. Denzin writes that reflexive cinema reminds the viewer that what is shown is the non-realist, fairly single minded selection of those in power of the means of representation. (34-35)

In The Birth of the Cinematic Society, Norman K. Denzin argues for a sense of cinema as fitting Bakhtin’s postmodern view of the carnivalesque. Quoting Stam, he refers to the way in which cinema projected its utopian ideal of cinematic society:

In the carnival glitter of the theatre, the dystopian realities of contemporary urban life undercapitalism (were) through an artistic change of signs’ turn(ed) into the simulacrum of a playful and equalitarian communitas, a world characterised by communicative transparency and free and familiar contact. (14)

Amelie is certainly a playful simulacrum’ there is no pretence of realism in the dialogue, the stylised characters or glossy cinematography. The viewer is encouraged to imagine a world in which familiar banter flows as it does between staff and customers at The Two Windmills, where a hypothetical’ conversation between strangers is mutually understood, and where neighbours go to such lengths to help and delight each other.

Lapsley and Westlake use Umberto Eco’s notion of double-coding,’ the process of making the system of coding ironic, so that the construct becomes visible. Referring to Pretty Woman’s use of classic fairy tale codes, they write:

By deliberately announcing itself as a fairy tale, Pretty Woman succeeds in bridging the contradiction faced by the spectator who is no longer able to believe in romanceyet at the same time wishes to do so. (180)

The article then seems to accept Lacan’s stance that true love is impossible:

Shocking though such a stance may seemit is consistent with everyday observation, in that romantic love seen from the outside is fraught with illusion, that lovers’ estimations of what their life together will be like is deeply unrealistic (181)

Amelie is a film that demands that the viewer, at least temporarily, abandons this view. Amelie’s imagined connection with Nino turns out to be valid, and the connection is such that when Nino, at last, comes to her apartment, there is no need for either of them to speak. Acknowledging the deliberate ridiculousness of the film actually allows the cynical viewer to overlook the same ridiculousness. Hence also the stereotyping and retro feel of the film, the ironic tone of the narrator’s voiceover, the bizarreness of Amelie’s tricks and the reference to her crazy psychology “any normal girl.”

The film pastiches conventions of stage and screen, for instance in the filming of Amelie’s daydreams as news bulletins, and when she imagines the street as a stage with a prompt to hand to supply her with witty lines. It’s a commonly expressed frustration that in real life situations, the right words never come to mind when they are needed, and here the viewer almost becomes the object of the film’s scrutiny, a shared fantasy suddenly aired on screen. The film asks us to abandon our pretence of cynicism when, it seems to suggest, we all really want the stories it presents to be real. These fantasies are collective in both senses of the word many individuals wish that they were more confident and better prepared for a range of social situations; there is also the wider cultural fantasy of a harmonious, altruistic society. We are presented with a pure version of these visions we all have fantasies, including sexual ones, that we would not really want to play out in real life because our prejudices and sense of convention interfere, and the film narrative refers explicitly to this conflict, with Amelie constantly pushing the real Nino, and his work at the Porno Palace, away. But whereas in real life to be faced with a figure like Dufayel, who follows Amelie’s movements so closely, would be a cause for considerable concern, especially given Amelie is a pretty young lady and Dufayel a lonely old man, in presenting this as a platonic friendship, and resolving the tension between Amelie’s image of Nino and her acceptance of the actual man the film speaks to a more innocent fantasy of open communication and genuine altruism.


Denzin, N. K. (1995) The Cinematic Society: The Voyeur’s Gaze, London: Sage.

Devereaux, L. and Hillman, R. (eds.) (1995) Fields of Vision: Essays in Film Studies, Visual Anthropology and Photography, London: University of California Press.

Easthope, A. (1993) Contemporary Film Theory, London: Longman.

Hollows, J., Hutchings, P. and Jankovich, M. (2000) The Film Studies Reader, London: Arnold.

Stacey, J. (1994) Stargazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship, London: Routledge.