From time to time I'll hear someone suggest that three act structure is a "Hollywood" thing and doesn't apply to foreign films or art films. That's really not true. Three act structure is simply a way to understand how stories work. When foreign and art films are good they invariably follow three act structure. Today I'll analyze how the quirky French comedy Amelie fits into this theory.
Main Character: Amelie. Her want is: to protect her fragile heart. Her need is: human contact.
Prologue: We learn about Amelie's childhood in a narrated prologue that sets us up to understand her need.
Domino: The discovery of the child's box hidden in the bathroom. This may seem to be the catalyst but it actually just sets in motion the bigger story which is a romance.
Catalyst: Amelie encounters Nino digging under a photo booth and they feel an instant attraction. Amelie now has a problem, though she probably couldn't vocalize it. She's determined to live her life alone (though perhaps now as a solo, anonymous do-gooder). However her attraction to Nino is causing her to doubt this decision. This introduces:
The Main Tension: Will Amelie overcome her fear and find love? (Or perhaps more elegantly "Will Amelie be able to fix her own life the way she fixes the lives of those around her?")
Act One Turning Point: Amelie sees Nino lose his photo album and she recovers it. Now she has a way to get in touch with him, but she's afraid to do so. Act one has an arc which is "Will Amelie identify herself to Nino?"
Midpoint: Amelie determines to find out about Nino and goes to look for him. She discovers that he's a whimsical dreamer like herself, but she doesn't actually identify herself to him yet. Instead she decides to craft an elaborate romantic scheme to gauge his interest and worth.
Act Two Turning Point: Amelie arranges to meet Nino in the cafe where she works, but at the last second loses her nerve and denies she's the one he's there to see.
Epiphany/Twist: Amelie realizes she's blown it and is heartbroken. But her coworker, Gina, who knows what a good person Amelie is, tells Nino the truth and gives him Amelie's address.
Resolution: Nino comes to Amelie's apartment. At first she's frightened to let him in, but she finally takes a chance, opens the door, and kisses him.
Though Amelie doesn't seem at all like a "Hollywood" film, it follows a fairly standard romantic comedy structure. The key to making unique, artistic, personal films is not in reinventing the fundamentals of structure, it's how you use the structure. Amelie's charm and brilliance comes from the character, scenes, style and point of view. As writers that's where we have the ability to make our mark!