French films that find distribution here don't always cross the pond successfully. Les Visiteurs, a megahit in France, offered special effects pathetically primitive by Hollywood standards, plus too many in-jokes about the snobbery of titled nobility. The upcoming Les Destines deals at length with porcelain manufacture in Limoges, sides with monied familes over the working poor, and should appeal mainly to rabid Francophiles. In contrast, The Closet has thrived stateside because its high-concept premise--a straight wimp triumphs by posing as gay--could have issued from Hollywood, where it's already acquired for remake.

It's also tough to imagine American audiences not falling hard for Amlie. Directed--or rather, choreographed--with unflagging verve by Delicatessen's Jean-Pierre Jeunet, it speaks the universal language of fantasy, purveying the desire to reconfigure reality by aiding the victims and smiting the villains. And it stresses the maddening role played by accident and chance in people's lives.

Amlie, perfectly embodied by dark, exquisite Audrey Tautou, unfurls like a zany adult fairy-tale. The first section, a revved-up account of Amlie's conception and mildly traumatic childhood, acts like a shot of adrenaline. The second section finds the grown Amlie as a waitress in a Montmartre caf, an eccentric beauty who lives reclusively in a Paris apartment house, along with an assortment of obscure, quietly desperate tenants (a gentler version of Delicatessen's cannibalistic apartment dwellers). By chance--of course--Amlie discovers behind her bathroom wall a little boy's long-vanished box of treasures. When she succeeds in anonymously returning it to the grown man, the gesture produces an epiphany: She can alter people's lives for the better, make an impact on the world, become the patron saint of 'all the lonely people.' Her good deeds include acting as a blind man's 'eyes' in the street; composing 'letters' to the blousy concierge from her dead, unfaithful husband that proclaim his love; tormenting a sadistic grocer by bollixing up his apartment.

In the third section, chance (again) triggers an encounter with Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), an equally marginal fellow who clerks in a porn shop and collects discarded, glued-together photos from fotomats in an album. Amlie recognizes a soul mate. The remainder of the movie is devoted to the cat-and-mouse game she plays with Nino--which painfully captures all the missed connections of real life--as she musters the courage to seize for herself the happiness she has awarded others.

A stylistic blitz, the film evokes the mystery and wonder of daily life by adopting the optic of a precocious, slightly demented child. Examples: The opening speculates in a sort of infantile game on what a bunch of random souls in Paris are doing at that precise moment; in another section, Amlie conjures all the orgasms occurring citywide on a particular evening. Jeunet likes to define characters through lists, as in a 'she likes' and 'she dislikes' riff, with the choice of quirky yet recognizable detail, plus the visual rendering, generating humor.

Jeunet's freewheeling style cuts loose from the rules observed by better-behaved films. There's the breakneck sprint of the opening, announcing that filmwise, we're on terra incognita; Amelie's asides to the audience; an intermittent voice-over courtesy of Andre Dussolier; animated creatures; even snippets of footage from Jules and Jim. The action is set in the year of Princess Di's death, an event often mentioned by the characters and featured at kiosks--so there's the teasing ambiguity of a fairy tale which is anchored in real time.

No small part of the movie's magic comes from Jeunet's quasi-surreal image of Paris, especially the steeply stepped sections around Montmartre (much poeticized compared to the tourist trap of reality). At times, the movie evokes the mysterious Paris of signs and portents that Andre Breton created in his surrealist novel Nadja. A statue looms, pointing his finger, and we wonder if it's cast-iron or a street performer. Like other objects in the film--including a painting of a talking dog sporting a grotesque lampshade collar hanging over Amlie's bed--everything is animate and capable of commentary. Much of the film is shot in a haunting amber twilight straight out of Magritte. And composer Yann Tiersen's soundtrack is pitch-perfect, a mix of old Piaf-type songs, violins, accordion, melodica--a fantasy composite of Parisian street music.

The film could have done with some cutting: There's a draggy, repetitious middle, with too many pranks against the grocer; too much cat-and-mouse between Amlie and Nino; some banal plot turns--but by then Jeunet's wacky humor deflects criticism. It's hard to imagine more drolly drawn minor characters, such as the sour habitue of Amlie's caf who seems to invite female rejection and conducts a running lament into his tape recorder. Jeunet finds poetry and humor in junk, discards (the torn fotomat photos), bric-a-brac. Amlie's dad, a shut-in, builds a shrine to her dead mother which features a giant plastic gnome. To get her father to take a trip, Amlie steals the gnome, which then 'sends' postcards of itself posing in exotic locales. In a laugh-out-loud sequence, Amlie imagines a disaster-mongering melodrama that befalls Nino (shot in documentary black-and-white) when he fails to show up for a date at her caf. The very facts of Nino's occupation and hobbies--that this is Amlie's dream man--are comical. Jeunet casts a sympathetic eye on society's lesser lights, as well as its inanimate jetsam. More than just stylistic fireworks, his Amlie is the genuine feel-good article. After all, how grim can things be if a gnome can send postcards from the Kremlin?

--Erica Abeel