Last week’s fire at Notre Dame prompted various reflections on French identity. Although a more ephemeral entity, the 2001 film Amélie raised questions about the same theme: was its faux-nostalgic, CGI-ed presentation of 1990s Paris an airbrushing of the city’s modern, multicultural identity, or a valid expression of an aspect of “Frenchness”? This new musical adaptation shares this same dichotomy.
The story of the lonely girl who intervenes in the lives of others so as to spread happiness where there was sorrow has a fairytale quality that does not need a specific site. Yet the musical’s book, by Craig Lucas, follows the film in making references to the death of Princess Diana, thereby locating the action firmly in a real time and place (rather than a fictional Paris equivalent). The advantage of this is that it provides a pretext for a rocking, Elton John take-off pre-interval number (one of Daniel Messé’s many lively and subtle pastiche compositions). Mostly, though, the counterpoint between the sweet confection of the story and the realities of Paris in the 1990s jars – and not in a Brechtian way. It’s like piling crème Chantilly on to steak tartare.
This is a great shame because, in other respects, the production is much better than the film – less cloying, more fun. A brilliant ensemble of actor-musicians simultaneously present and enact the story. Under Michael Fentiman’s direction, set against Madeleine Girling’s design, wonderful ingenuities of movement and props zoom scenes and perspectives (the term “piano roll”, here, takes on a literal reality). As Amélie, Audrey Brisson offers a rare performance combining emotional nuance and heightened physicality. Overall, though, for me, the whimsicalisation of Paris strikes a fatal false note – stars, therefore, for the production rather than the material.