I have had to lie for most of my life and tell cute girls that I like the film Amelie. In fact I do not like movie, but such an opinion is not the most conducive for wooing whimsical belles filles. Most of my objections toward Amelie stem from its throw-magic-on-any-narrative-and-call-it-continental mentality. There is nothing particularly arresting about the film’s story, and the film seems to advocate a world view that is both lacking in humanity and surfeit with unreasonable expectations. However, the whole thing is suffused with the bright palette of Tautou’s smirking lips and filled with magical trinkets. Even more regrettably, this film set the course for a long posterity of films that would be called “charming”: Chocolat, The Science of Sleep, etc.
I Served the King of England is the latest victim of adding a spoonful of sugar to a story that would otherwise be obviously flawed. It tells the story of Jan Dite, an awkward man who aspires all of his life to become rich. Working his way through increasingly prestigious posts as a waiter, he succeeds through his atypical aplomb and quirky charisma. Eventually, he becomes involved with a Nazi woman as Czechoslovakia is being ceded to German control. The film flashes between this story and Jan as older man after he has been released from Soviet detainment following World War II.
Now this may not sound like the most compelling story and surely some would fear it’s a routine Horatio Alger regurgitation. But did I mention there was magic? The film is bookended by an encounter with a rich businessman who somehow can find Jan no matter where life has swept him away. We see the businessman lay his money out on the floor, making a carpet of cash that flies American Beauty-like at the camera as Jan contemplates the wealth. Other touches of subtle magic (an infinity of flying stamps, a nude on a rotating glass dais) accent the movie’s saturated, byzantine mise-en-scene. It’s ever so charming.
This stylistic spackling over holes is truly disappointing from Menzel who, almost four decades ago, produced the widely-acclaimed and beautiful Closely Watched Trains a film so spartan that one might mistake it for neo-realism. With long shots, simple compositions, and a temperate voice, Closely Watched Trains tells the story of simple folk who only wish to relish the simple things in life. The film promotes such a quotidian mindset and gives a ridicules portrayal of those who tried to climb social ladders or overreach themselves. It is endearing and manages to capture the spirit of an Eastern Central Europe that had wallowed for three decades under varying levels of foreign control.
Coming from such a career, I Served the King of England feels like a betrayal. It’s not that the film isn’t enjoyable – for its part, Menzel’s latest is a fun and easy view – it’s that it cannot be content with just being enjoyable. One can almost hear production meetings in which words like “enchanting”, “alluring” and “sensual” were thrown about. And this is exactly what the film ends up feeling like: an intricate semantics overlaid on a simple grammar.
I can only hope that Europe cures itself quickly of this magical realism hangover. Surely someone will criticize my invocation of such a genre, but such objection would only prove my point. If there have been enough continental products that are, in some way, magic that the field deserves a multiple designation of how magical the products are, we have gone terribly astray. I cannot in good conscience recommend avoiding I Served the King of England, I just resent the film for not making me like it more. But, perhaps, this is not fair. And so we are brought back to unreasonable expectations. Damn you, Amelie.