What Happens to the Oh-So French Amélie When It Becomes an American Musical?

Phillipa Soo in Amélie. Photo: Joan Marcus

Sixteen years after the release of the French film Amélie, the young girl in Montmartre is searching for her destiny again, but this time in New York. A stage adaption of the whimsical tale opened on Broadway this week with Hamilton’s Phillipa Soo in the title role — despite director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s distaste for musicals. In order to make sense of Amélie’s legacy, Vulture sat down with Guillaume Laurant, who co-wrote the film with Jeunet, and Craig Lucas, who wrote the book for the musical, to discuss the story’s lessons about human connection, the enduring appeal of Paris, and how our perspective on the heroine changes in the new adaptation.

Craig, how did you become interested in the story of Amélie and why did you think it might make a good musical?
Craig Lucas: I don’t think you take a work of art, especially one that is as successful on its own term, and try to make it in another form. I’ve never understood that. If Amélie exists, if you want to see it, you go see it. To move it as it is onto the stage seems to me to be an exercise in madness. To me, the only reason to do it in the theater was to bring a different perspective to it.

This was different because musical theater enables you to get inside the head and the heart of people through a language that transcends reason. The movie of Amélie is very powerful because you watch this woman’s face and she says very little. You must imagine, to a certain degree, what she’s thinking and feeling. You fall in love with her partly because of her laconic nature. So we had an absurd task, which was, what is she thinking? What is she feeling? And trying to give voice to it.

The movie has very much the feeling of a male gaze, a heterosexual looking at this woman going, “I love this person. What is she thinking?” This was a project where we had a female director and she wanted to explore what it was like for Amélie to find her voice and to be able to use her voice, to do that without necessarily being told how to do that by men. As a gay person, I’m perversely interested in subverting that narrative that women need men to tell them how to live their lives. It’s a different thing. It honors the movie, but in some ways, it’s even sillier. It was a chance to put a different perspective on it.

Guillaume, have you seen the musical?
Guillaume Laurant: Yes. In L.A. in December.

And what was your reaction to it?
GL: I was very impressed because, first of all, the question I had is, how do we reduce to just a few sets a film that’s so rich with so many characters and so many sets?

The main thing, as far seeing the musical is that, ultimately, as people said to us when they would see the film — this is a film that makes us feel good about life. It makes you feel good, that’s really essential to the film. When I saw the musical, I came out feeling good with a smile on my face. So that, they really got.

Craig, what struck me in constructing the musical was that you had to go from filmic devices to musical storytelling devices. You don’t have the same third-person narration, and instead, there’s Amélie singing about her desires.
CL: The fascinating thing about what Guillaume Laurant and Jeunet did is they created a character who doesn’t know she has a problem. Because she thinks she has the perfect life. She has survived a difficult childhood by using her imagination and her faith in herself. But I think as Freud and Lacan say, it’s the thing that gets us through childhood is the thing that hobbles us as adults. Her relying on herself and her imagination keeps her at a great remove.

The other brilliant thing that they created is a similar isolation between people in all of the relationships of the film. Everyone is having some difficulty in connecting with other people. And that’s very moving, and that’s how a musical works. The central idea is built into all their relationships.

Guillaume, you developed the film with Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who said in 2013 that he wasn’t interested in seeing the musical and that he wasn’t in favor of there being a musical of this film. Have you talked to him about this production at all? Has he changed his opinion at all or is his mind still the same?
GL: Well, I think in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s case, culturally, the French people are much less into musicals than, for instance, Americans and British people. It’s a culture that you have to have and undeniably, Jean-Pierre Jeunet does not. I do. I’ve seen musicals onstage, I’ve seen a lot of musicals on film, including the Fred Astaire films. When I was a kid I used to put tacks on my shoes to do tap dancing. But it’s a prejudice that a lot of people in France have against musical. And in the particular case of this film, of Amélie, it’s such a special story. The film was turned down by three production companies. We thought we’d never be able to make it. And then what happened was so magical. It was a global success. So I think both Jeunet and I, in a sense, thought of Amélie as this only child. We agreed, since he and I shared the rights, that there would be no Amélie 2, there would be no Amélie on television, there would be no Amélie series.

The musical is a particular case and it did take about 15 years to convince Jeunet to let it happen. But now it’s a little bit as if Amélie had a child of her own and it’s time for Jean-Pierre and myself to be grandparents.

Craig, how did you approach the depiction of Paris in such an American art form? I was struck by the fact that the score sounds a little bit more like an American musical than a the stereotypical Parisian sound — there aren’t a lot of accordions or anything.
CL: Of course that comes from the composer and the lyricist, but they were not interested in trying to do a faux-French musical. In fact, Broadway history is littered with sort of dozens of twee failures where Americans have tried to pastiche France and French music. And I think it’s insulting to the French. What I think the musical aims for is there’s an internationalism about Paris. There’s a feeling in Paris, and I was there for a long time during the development of An American in Paris, and I’ve never been happier anywhere in the world.

Speaking of Parisian art, the Renoir painting Luncheon of the Boating Party becomes such a key motif in both the musical and in the movie, especially with the idea that girl with the glass is a symbol for Amélie herself. What did that painting symbolize for you?
GL: So, that idea in the script, at least in the first version, was very different. At one point, the painting was much more important. There was a version in which I had had all the characters in the painting be in the film as characters as well. And then we kind pulled it back to have only Amélie.

CL: You know, we tried that actually in the musical. We made a transparency of the painting and we put the entire cast, which is the same number of people as the painting, behind the faces. Something I wanted very badly to put in the show, we couldn’t find a way for, is that though individuals in the painting are looking at the other people, those people are not looking on them. So it’s all … you can draw a diagram. It’s 14 people not connecting, which is exactly what the show is. The only person meeting anyone’s gaze is the girl with the glass because she’s looking at the you, the viewer.

Amélie’s also so affected by her childhood relationship with her family in the film, with her distant parents, and there’s a sense that Nino also had a tough childhood that really affected him.
GL: In a sense, that’s what the painter pushes her to do when he tells her, “Go towards life. Embrace life.” The whole question is to succeed in becoming an adult while keeping that childhood imagination. That’s really the theme of the film and the musical. I thought there was a great idea in the musical, which is to have the adult Amélie talk to the child Amélie, which, in a sense, allows her to reconcile herself with herself.

How did you come up with the idea of having the child Amélie converse with her older self in the musical?
CL: My first play involved an adult dealing with their childhood psyche so I’d already experimented with that and the team was interested in that here because that child in that movie is such a genius. She’s so fed up with those grown-ups. She’s so funny! She just knows that they’re clueless and she just has to wait to get out of that house, which is exactly how I felt as a child.

You also introduce this running theme where Amélie’s mother teaches her about Zeno’s paradox and it becomes this metaphor for how she can’t connect with people.
CL: Zeno’s paradox isn’t in the movie at all, if I recall. But this wonderful moment when the mother is trying to teach and the child is not at all interested seemed really useful. We needed something to represent the bad lessons that she was getting from those parents. They were scared by how un-normal she is, so they told her a lie, which appeared as science. But it’s bad science: Nothing ever, ever touches.

So Amélie has to overcome those bad lessons with her fantastical imagination?
CL: It’s rather brilliant what they did [in the film] because she’s a rather, in many ways, an ordinary person. It’s the fabulous destiny of someone who spends five years in Paris and is still a waitress. She’s quotidian, yet she’s kind of a genius. I just fell in love with it. The more I worked with it, the more I fell in love with it. It’s also, we haven’t said, it’s a masterpiece of cinema technique. Things were done with Jeunet that haven’t been done before. Deep focus and racking and color design. There’s very rarely any vision that doesn’t have a burn of red in it and a green kind of feel. And of course the American press was rather, pfft, the way they are.

GL: It was very mixed [in France, too]. Some critics liked it; some hated it. They just can’t get along.

CL: Why can’t we just get along?

GL: I have a niece who’s going to film school in San Diego and they each have to choose a film that they’re going to study all year long. She’s French-Spanish, there might one Australian, but for the rest, they’re all American. There are six students who chose Amélie to study for a full year which is more than any other film, despite the fact that it’s a film that’s now 16 years old.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What Happens to Amélie When It Becomes a Musical?