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Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Fabulous Kindness of Amelie Poulain?

In Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 film Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain, the eponymous heroine devotes herself to a succession of fairytale-Godmother-like good deeds. One such endeavour consists of guiding a blind man across a road and along a busy street before depositing him at the entrance to the local metro station.

Watch video (in French)

As they go along, Amélie gives him a gossipy audio-description of the people and shops they pass. On one level, this episode is a piece of harmless fun. It demonstrates the vibrancy of the rue Lepic quartier whilst highlighting Amélie's eye for amusing detail and flair for language. But this extract is also problematic. Not only does Amélie fail to ask the blind man where he wants to go, she doesn't give him the chance to get a word in edgeways. She points out the smell of the greengrocer's melon (a smell the man would surely have recognised for himself) without bothering to grab a piece for him to taste. She tells him what is on sale at the butcher's without checking that he has already done his shopping. And she describes delicious-sounding cheeses to him without asking him if he'd like to stop and choose some. I find food shopping in France a beguiling yet frustrating business: there is just too much choice and it all smells so wonderful. I love French cheese but always feel like I am missing out by not being able to read all the labels and make an educated selection - if I met Amélie in Montmatre, I'd insist (if she ever stopped talking) that she describe the cheese to me in mouth-watering detail rather than rushing me past the shop at dizzying speed. But here she keeps the blind man trapped in his own passivity, thus perpetuating the myth that the blind are helpless and vulnerable.

Amélie's actions are certainly well-intentioned, and the dazzling way that the blind man's face is lit up at the end of the clip suggests that Jeunet too thinks that this must have been a genuinely wonderful experience for him. But this way of thinking suggests that the blind are lacking something in their relationship with the world which they must rely on the kind-hearted to give them. That a world without sight is a world without knowledge, sensation and community. That sight is better than no sight. This is perhaps not a surprising reaction from a film-maker. But what if this blind man relates to the world in a wholly different way? What if the pictures he gets from hearing, touching, smelling and tasting the world are just as fulfilling as Amélie's and Jeunet's fetishization of vision? Or, more worryingly, what if Amélie's unsolicited arrival in his life has shown him a world that he was not even aware of? Will he be left happy and grateful to have experienced more fully the world around him? Or will he be left feeling miserable and inadequate, having discovered that others prize most highly a sense that he does not share.

The Association Valentin Hauy has recently produced a series of short films about how the sighted can best relate to the blind. I'd like to think that these films were made as a reaction to Jeunet's film. I like them for their humour and common sense. They deal with everyday situations in which the sighted might interact with the blind: on the street, at a restaurant, at work. Unfortunately these are in unsubtitled French but the message of these films is simple: treat the blind as independent and autonomous individuals rather than assuming that you know better than they do how best to relate to the world.

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