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Valérie Orlando (Illinois Wesleyan University) – The Way Things Never Were: Cultivating Nostalgic Memories through the French Cinematographic Imagination in “Amélie” and “Chacun Cherche son chat”

In our era of tenuous cultural identity, multi-ethnic discourse and nationalistic and/or patriotic ardeur fueled by 9/11, cultivating the nostalgia and the distorted memories of pasts that never really were, (but which we would have liked to have been), has been a favorite pass-time in France. The nostalgic climate in which we are living has become most evident in French cinematographic productions in the last few years. The tense global political climate coupled with increasingly mobile populations that immigrate and whose faces are both non-western and non-white, have compelled, particularly French filmmakers, to rummage out a collective memory from years past. There is a sense of urgency in the filmic messages studied in this paper. The most notably of these messages is the need to ferret out a collective memory that is perceived as representing the majority group ( that is the français-de-souche – the white, Catholic, French stock) before it is too late and this collective memory of the past disappears. As Maurice Halbwachs wrote in La mémoire collective in 1950, what comprises group memory “are remembrances of events and experiences of concern to the greatest number of members” therefore, when these group members are lost, so too is the past (43). 1 French cinema increasingly has sought to first recapture the memories of by-gone years and also sell films abroad, The nationalistic vogue that saw Jean-Mari Le Pen win 19% of the vote in the French primary elections of 2002 and the fact that “French flavored” films have increasingly gained fascination in the U.S. (the Franco-U.S. production Chocolat starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp comes to mind) set the state for the biggest French hit on the global scene ever: Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, ou more affectionately know as Amélie. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film captured a Parisian world of by-gone years full of accordion music, Edith Piaff, the clean streets of Montmartre, metro stations without garbage and sidewalks peopled with no people of color. The film truly took audiences on both sides of the Atlantic down memory lane, giving movie-goers what France has become synonymous for: a certain savoir-faire for style and romance. Amélie is not the first nostalgia film ever made and it certainly won’t be the last.

Cédric Klapisch’s 1996 film Chacun cherche son chat was the most “successful French language film in the United States that year” and had “healthy box-office figures” in France.
2 Its appeal lies in its romantic structure as well as its whimsical glimpses of Parisian life. It hails a life-style that is viewed as slowly eroding in the face of modernism, high-rise chick and decadence, not to mention the threat of foreign immigrants. These adversities are pushing little old ladies, artists and musicians out along with, what Lucy Mazdon suggest are “iconic images of France …the boulangerie, the local bistro, the gossiping concierge” (97). In place of these French “lieux de mémoire” as Pierre Nora defines them, is the cold, harsh reality of a global world: crime, immigrants and a vide that characterizes living in contemporary society and which leaves the heroine lonely and depressed.

Using Amélie and Chacun cherche son chat as examples par excellence, this paper will address contemporary French filmmakers’ love affair with nostalgia and how the nostalgic film is offered as a way to stave off what Nora suggests are the increasing “ritual-less society; fleeting incursions of the sacred into a disenchanted world.


1 Maurice Halbwachs. The Collective Memory (NY: Harper & Row, 1980)

2 Lucy Mazdon. “Space, place and community in Chacun cherche son chat” in France on Film: Reflections on Popular French Cinema (London: Wallflower Press, 2001: 95-105), 95.

3 Pierre Nora. Realms of Memory (NY: Columbia, 1996), 7

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