Grade: A-

It should probably come as no surprise that it’s taken a Frenchman to transform the hackneyed old plot about two people destined to find one another and fall in love–some new example of the formula seems to appear every other week nowadays (“Serendipity” and “On the Line” are but the most recent examples)–into something wonderful. But in “Amelie,” Jean-Pierre Jeunet has created a magical, delightful fable from the oldest of material. Quirky, witty, and visually exhilarating, Jeunet’s film is a luscious ode to romance, spiced with a decidedly Gallic twist.

“Amelie” has gone by several titles. Originally it was called “Le fabuleux destin d’Amelie Poulain,” and then, in initial announcements of its American release, “Amelie from Montmartre.” One can at least be certain that it can’t get any shorter. However you refer to it, though, the picture is a charming confection turned out with dazzling directorial aplomb. Audrey Tautou is the title character, a wide-eyed pixie who’s a waitress in a Paris cafe where the staff and clientele are all eccentrics. A prologue, spoken over brief, flashy vignettes by a chattily omniscient narrator, tells us about the girl’s odd childhood: misdiagnosed by her emotionally distant father (Rufus), a doctor, with a heart ailment, she grows up home-schooled, developing a greater connection to her fantasies than to real friends. Now a young woman, Amelie becomes a sort of quietly beaming, fairy-like figure helping those who need aid and punishing those who deserve it. Her success in anonymously returning a box of childhood treasures she’s found behind a wall of her apartment to its former owner (Maurice Benichou) and seeing its positive effect encourages her to arrange a romance between a fellow-worker (Isabelle Nanty) and a rude customer (Dominique Pinon), make friends with an elderly neighbor (Serge Merlin) whose fragile bones make it impossible for him to leave his room, contrive a discovery to lighten the heart of her long-depressed landlady (Yolande Moreau), and encourage her widowed father to travel to exotic locales. She also devises a series of wittily nasty tricks against the mean-spirited local grocer (Urbain Cancellier), who delights in demeaning his mentally-challenged assistant (Jamel Debbouze). She takes a special interest, however, in Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), a peculiar young man who’s a clerk in a porno shop, and whom she observes retrieving photos discarded at public camera booths and pasting them into a scrapbook. Eventually Amelie comes into possession of the book, and in returning it to its owner in a very roundabout away, she not only solves the riddle Mathieu’s trying to solve in assembling it but also creates what seems an inevitable connection to him.

Such a narrative could, in lesser hands, have been unbearably precious, but Jeunet treats it with such technical exuberance that it becomes quite irresistible. The director’s penchant for the visually bizarre was abundantly clear in his earlier work in tandem with Marc Caro, 1991’s “Delicatessen” and 1995’s “City of Lost Children,” and it could be glimpsed in his solo effort, 1997’s unsuccessful “Alien Resurrection,” but here he gives it free rein; together with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, designers Aline Bonetto and Emma Lebail and editor Herve Schneid, he creates an enchantingly colorful world that’s sometimes only fleetingly glimpsed and at others pored lovingly over. The entire cast–including Pinon, whose face one will certainly recognize from Jeunet’s earlier films–fit in perfectly with the director’s vision, helping him to realize a fantasy world that’s unique and delectable.

In fact, the sole aspect of “Amelie” which leaves a mite to be desired involves our heroine’s scheme to reinvigorate her father’s interest in the world–a plan based on snatching his garden gnome and having photographs of it lolling about in distant locales mailed to him by a traveling friend. It’s an old bit that lacks the inventiveness that marks virtually every other element of the piece. That’s a minor quibble, though, in comparison to all there is to praise.

Why “Amelie” works so perfectly while other films of its ilk are cloying and obvious is as much a mystery as the souffle that emerges flawless from an oven while others fall. Ultimately the only proper response is to cease analyzing and just savor the result. In cinematic terms, “Amelie” is delicious.