I'm excited whenever I see smart, useful film criticism emerge from the orgy of popular commentary, and when it comes to film, The Onion AV Club is one of the more reliable sources for good ideas. In a recent article on Elizabethtown, Nathan Rabin coined the term "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," which he describes thusly:
"Dunst embodies a character type I like to call The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (see Natalie Portman in Garden State for another prime example). The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family."
This is good, solid criticism, the type of thoughtful generalization that can be applied across a broad range of films (as the AV Club does again later). The MPDG archetype is a lot like the Magical Negro archetype, which I've written about before. She embodies something that our culture subconsciously idolizes and holds sacred, and just as the Magical Negro gives us some insight into our racial stereotypes, so the MPDG gives us some insight into our gender stereotypes.
I want to touch on the MPDG in two movies... not to criticize them for their stereotypes, but to praise them for their deconstruction. These are Amelie and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both films are widely praised as thoughtful, well-written films, but it's hard to say what exactly works about them. I think their unconventional treatment of the MPDG is at least one thing that both have going for them.
In Eternal Sunshine, Clementine starts the film as the essential MPDG. When Joel, reserved self-hating male, feels inspired to do something spontaneous and go to Montauk, she appears magically on a train, beckoning to him. They share an inexplicably intense afternoon (the traces of their former relationship, it turns out) and Joel finds himself beginning to loosen. Clementine is the inspiration for the blossoming of his personality in the Long Island winter snow.
However, as we dig into the chronology of the story, we start to see glimpses of this MPDG-driven relationship, and where it's taken them before. The second key scene, developing their emotional dynamic, is their fight in early 2004. In this scene, Clementine's absence and irreverence prompt Joel to air his grievances with the relationship, and we discover, to our surprise, that those free-spirited qualities that drew Joel to Clementine in the first place have started to wear on him. For Joel, her attractive sexual confidence has started to seem like lust and manipulation, and her spontaneity has threatened his own sense of stability.
This is, in a sense, a critique of the male investment in the MPDG. She may fulfill the male's fantasy of sex and happiness for a short time, but eventually the idealization will fade away, and the disillusioned man will be left with a real person, whose quirks may occasionally become less than endearing. By putting Clementine on a pedestal, Joel has doomed himself to disappointment and resentment... all she wants is to be treated like a real person, flawed and uncertain.
Amelie takes the stereotype and places it at yet another angle. Jeunet's 2001 film is about a girl who undertakes the mission of disrupting the lives of everyone around her, always in innocent ways, in order to make them reevaluate their lives. In some cases it works, and in some it doesn't.
Amelie Poulain is the perfect MPDG. She is friendly, lovable, and spontaneous, looking for intimacy, and bringing a sense of playful disorder to her surroundings. She only breaks the MPDG stereotype in one way: the MPDG is always a secondary character with a one-dimensional inner life, whereas Amelie is the primary protagonist, living out a personal history and chasing her desires. She is the MPDG of so many other movies, but in this little masterpiece, we are seeing the world through her eyes.
Is Nino the reserved male pseudo-protagonist to Amelie's MPDG? Perhaps... he spends a good deal of the film enduring a job he doesn't like and pursuing an introverted hobby to the ends of the earth. When Amelie starts leaving him clues as to her whereabouts and identity, he is eager to engage in her game. However, he doesn't have Jeunet's spotlight. In this spotlight, we find Amelie, and we discover certain intricacies of character that we wouldn't see in a conventional MPDG film.
In particular, Jeunet's camera shows us that Amelie loves to bring disorder to the world around her, but that her quirky hobbies are actually almost a form of self-sacrifice. She spends so much time trying to disrupt the lives of her friends that she hasn't taken the time to look for a love of her own. Her mysterious romance with Nino is her first attempt to take control of her own life, rather than disrupting others' control of theirs. In a sense, this is what every MPDG does: she sacrifices her own desires in order to be a vehicle in others' stories. She has positive influence, but she has no motive.
Amelie is the MPDG who decides to do something for herself, and by doing so, she discovers that she is a genuine agent in her own story, rather than simply a device in somebody else's.