Now more than ever, this world could use someone as sweet-natured and kind-hearted as "Amelie" — perhaps even more than the cinematic world needs this movie.

This very peculiar but utterly captivating French import not only stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of its American competition but above other foreign fare as well (even though there have been quite a few very strong efforts recently that were made outside this country).

However, be warned that the film is very much like other works of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet — especially 1991's "Delicatessen" and 1995's "The City of Lost Children" — in that it takes awhile to get used to the loopy sensibilities and biting, sometimes dark humor. (Also, the movie does contain some sexual material, though it's treated in a rather goofy manner and is tame enough that it might not cause too much heartburn for the majority of filmgoers.)

"Amelie" also deserves points for introducing the rest of the world to actress Audrey Tatou, whose huge, expressive eyes and winsome smile will wipe away any objections of even the hardest-hearted cynic. She stars as the title character, a hopelessly romantic twentysomething waitress from Paris who has a rather vivid imagination. She's also painfully shy, thanks to a rather clinical and icy childhood that has left her unable to form intimate personal relationships.

So instead, she meddles in the lives of others. Her Random Acts of Kindness campaign begins with returning a box of toys and treasures to a middle-aged man who has forgotten how to love, and it continues to spiral out from there. She sets up her lonely, hypochondriacal co-worker (Claire Maurier) with a man (Dominique Pinon) so broken-hearted he's begun stalking his ex. And her semiregular visits brighten the life of a brittle-boned artist (Serge Merlin) who is obsessed with duplicating a Renoir painting.

As happy as all of this makes her, some questions still remain. Will our heroine ever find happiness with kindred soul Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), who collects the discards from train-station photo booths? And has she really made a lasting difference in anyone's lives?

Given that this is a romantic fantasy, the answers to these questions and the film's happy ending are rarely in doubt. But the material is done with a liveliness and giddy enthusiasm that will likely enchant audiences.

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Working for only the second time without his longtime co-director Marc Caro (a comic-book artist who created the previous films' almost cartoonish set design), here Jeunet has created a more personal, more intimate film that still bears some of his trademarks. (At times the film resembles a painting, and some of the material is pretty offbeat.)

Of course, Caro benefits from having a star-in-the-making as his main character. Though such Jeunet film regulars as Pignon, Merlin and Rufus (who plays Amelie's at-arm's-length father) put in bids to steal the film, Tatou simply has to smile to make it hers once again.

"Amelie" is rated R for female nudity and glimpses of nude artwork and props, simulated sex (done mostly for laughs), scattered use of profanity and brief violence (a scuffle). Running time: 120 minutes.


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