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Amélie: An intimate portrait of social anxiety

The iconic French film Amélie (2001) is an intimate portrait of Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou), a young woman with intense social anxiety. Amélie lives in a small apartment in Paris in the 1990s, working as a waitress at a quaint café frequented by an array of fascinating and unique individuals.

Amélie is quiet and shy, awkward in company, and often feels misunderstood. But she also has a kind heart and a vivid imagination. She loves to bake, she’s a wonderful artist, and she dreams of traveling the world and helping those in need, idolising figures such as Mother Theresa and Princess Diana.

The film follows Amélie’s reaction to a series of events that are triggered by the news of Princess Diana’s death. Amélie drops a perfume-stopper in shock from the news, which dislodged a tile behind which is a box containing childhood memorabilia. Amélie resolves to track the owner down and return it, making a wager with the universe that, if it makes the owner happy, she will devote her life to bringing happiness to others.

I first saw Amélie when I was a socially anxious teenager, and it affected me not only because it was such a beautiful and unique film, but also because I had never before seen someone with social anxiety portrayed as a lead character. It taught me that even extremely shy people can be interesting, beautiful, creative, and make others’ lives better through small actions that can, in fact, have more power than even more high-profile ones.

Amélie also paints a very powerful and balanced picture of the costs and benefits of having a more introverted and socially anxious temperament – it is romanticised, to some extent, but the film also doesn’t shy away from the sad reality of the isolation it creates.

Amélie is a case formulation of social anxiety

Drawing on the style of French New Wave cinema, the film begins with a montage of scenes from Amélie’s early life that portray her introverted and cautious personality developing alongside her vivid imagination and longing for adventure. In the field of psychology, this is known as a ‘case formulation’ – in other words, figuring out where the social anxiety came from, what behaviours keep it going and the strengths the person has to be able to improve their life.

Amélie experienced the trauma of having unaffectionate parents and losing her mother at a young age. Avoidance of the outside world was encouraged by her grieving father due to his own health anxiety and hermit nature. We see glimpses of a very adventurous and creative young girl who retreats into her vivid imagination to soothe her loneliness, and does interesting things like climbing onto the roof of her apartment building to play an anonymous prank on a neighbour who wronged her. But overall, her carefree nature is mostly repressed by her father’s desire to protect her - any acts of rebellion were mostly done in a constrained and secretive way.

As well as these pranks, Amélie anonymously does very thoughtful and imaginative things for others. For instance, she steals her father’s garden gnome and has a flight attendant friend mail him pictures of it in front of international landmarks, living out her father’s dream of global travel. Her longing for adventure is satisfied temporarily through these actions, however, she never goes on any of her own adventures, and the anonymity protects her from rejection, but also keeps her isolated.

I distinctly remember the scenes where Amélie is faced with the isolation that her socially anxious behaviours have created – she distracts herself from it through her anonymous interventions, or by observing others through her window, getting to know them in a one-sided manner. However, ultimately, she is so afraid of intimacy that she avoids making direct connections with anyone, instead satisfying herself by fantasising about being a revered saint whose death is mourned across the world due to her acts of extreme self-sacrifice. Retreating into the imagination like this is a very common way of coping with social anxiety – dangling the carrot of an idealised future helps the sufferer feel better about their unfortunate present circumstances.

Amélie depicts what is involved in overcoming social anxiety

Through the course of the film, Amélie evolves from being a complete hermit to someone who participates more actively in the community and begins to establish a caring relationship. For most of the film, Amélie is portrayed in an observer role as she watches the events of the world go by through her television set, peering through her window with binoculars or encountering others’ interactions as a silent bystander.

But to find the box’s owner, Amélie must take a series of tiny but courageous steps, and the filmmakers do an excellent job of demonstrating what these small actions mean to her and how brave she needs to be to complete them. They don’t always pay off for her in the moment, however, overall, she is better off for having opened herself up to this journey and all the various situations she encounters along the way, because she develops a romantic connection with someone during her hunt for the box’s owner, and she eventually has the courage to express her affection for him.

Amélie demonstrates the strengths of a socially anxious introvert

Throughout the film, Amélie begins to participate more in society by setting up her thoughtful contingencies to bring others happiness, such as orchestrating a love affair between a colleague and a customer by planting love tokens around the café.

Amelie’s consistent role of observer rather than participant means that, when she does attempt to intervene, she does so with an intricate knowledge of the person she is trying to help, because she has paid them her full attention and kept the focus off herself.

This means her actions are often very specific and meaningful to the individual, so those who benefit from them sometimes believe that they have encountered some kind of guardian angel. This is one common strength of socially anxious introverts – we still care a lot about others, and because we keep the attention off us, we can often learn more details about people and in a shorter timeframe than extroverts can.

However, even as the events resulting from Amélie’s interventions unfold, she ultimately still watches on as a sideline observer. This create an illusion of connection for her, because she knows she is responsible for giving joy to others, however, because they don’t know it’s her, the connection is one-sided and cannot develop any further.

Reflections from Amélie

If you identify as someone with social anxiety and/or introversion, I encourage you to watch Amélie and reflect on the following questions to help you along your life journey.

  • What is your ‘case formulation’? What are the key moments from your earlier life that have shaped your mindset? Who are the family members you are most similar to?

  • Do you share any of Amélie’s strengths? And if so, could you harness them more effectively and creatively in your daily life?

  • Is there anything you do that creates an artificial feeling of connection and masks feelings of isolation, like Amélie’s tendency to observe others or secretly intervene in their lives?

  • Is there anything that Amélie was missing out on that you resonated with for your own life? And if so, what are the small, brave steps you could take that might bring you closer to authentic, two-way connection with others?

All images in this post were taken from Amélie, UGC & Claudie Ossard Productions, 2001


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