[14 December 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Warfare and the armaments necessary for same can make for tenuous satire. For every ripe ripping apart given the subject (Kubrick’s classic Dr. Strangelove, for example), there are efforts that either barely make it (Wag the Dog) or fail outright (War, Inc. ). The latest from Amelie auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet tries to walk the fine line between biting political lampoon and silly silent film slapstick. It’s another of the filmmaker’s alternative reality reworkings, a recognizable France freely reinvented as a battle between competing military suppliers, a determined, disenfranchised man, and his newfound collection of homeless coconspirators. The results, entitled Micmacs (now available on Blu-ray from Sony) are so imaginative, so visually inventive and playful that we easily overlook the film’s flaws - even when they threaten the very elements we’re enjoying.
When his father is killed by a landmine, young Bazil is suddenly orphaned. Thirty years later, a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting almost ends his life. While recuperating, he discovers that both tragedies can be tied to a pair of despotic weapons manufacturers - François Marconi and Nicolas Thibault de Fenouillet. Each one is corrupt, tied to unscrupulous acts worldwide, and indulge their own peculiar personal proclivities as a result of exploiting conflicts worldwide. Hoping to destroy them, Bazil tries to infiltrate their individual headquarters. When that fails, the suddenly homeless man teams up with a group of junkyard rebels. They include a contortionist, a human calculator, a cliché-riddled writer, a mechanical expert, a master thief, and a daredevil. Together, they plot to ruin Marconi and de Fenouillet while exposing their bad business modeling to the media.
If whimsy were radioactive, Micmacs would be a billion megaton amusement. In an era that shies away from vision and true flights of fancy, Jeunet’s latest is a Concorde of creative invention. As he’s proved since his arrival on the scene with 1991’s brilliant Delicatessen, images and imagination are far more important than pure plot logic. Channeling Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, with just a smidgen of his own unique hyper-cartoon style, Jeunet argued that big ideas and complicated emotions could be extracted from even the most arch artistic approach. It was something he solidified with 1995’s The City of Lost Children, and truly mastered with 2001’s popular Audrey Tautou vehicle and 2004’s A Very Long Engagement. Usually collaborating with set/art designer Marc Caro, the director uses a heighten sense of reality to forge his fairy tale inspired aims. Like the best folklore, Jeunet usually spins one Hell of a yarn. Like the worst of said fiction, his motives are frequently obvious and overreaching.
Micmacs does suffer a little from such blatant prostylitizing. Clearly, Jeanet wants to make an anti-arms race statement, the subversive manner in which his villains live their lives - Marconi is a sleazeball absentee father, de Fenouillet collects the preserved body parts of famous people - as the first of many obvious salvos. On the other side of the narrative coin, Bazil and his band of the hand-me-downs are viewed in the most noble and naive way possible. While they are capable of great criminality, we are supposed to view it through the decency of their intentions. If they were trying to undermine a rational government with their Rube Goldberg rebellion, we’d argue with their approach. But since they are attacking war profiteers (and it could be animal testing facilities, sweatshops - any socially egregious activity), we champion their choices.
Jeunet does make it easy for us to enjoy such contradictions. Utilizing exaggerated performances and camera angles, he manufactures a feeling of skewed innocence, an ability for the audience to view things through the puzzled eyes of its protagonists. While Dany Boon’s Bazil is more of a motivator than a memorable character, the rest of his motley crew really shines. They include Jeanet mainstay Dominique Pinon (as a human cannonball convinced he’s in the Guinness Book of World Records) and Julie Ferrier as a particularly lithe and limber compatriot. Sure, one can grow tired of the deer in the headlights look most of these actors possess, many confusing such a bug eyed facade as being funny, or friendly, but for the most part, Jeunet’s talents tapers off the rougher, more ridiculous edges (he goes into more detail about his approach during the delightful commentary track accompanying the Blu-ray).
Besides, the heist-like elements of the plot keep us connected. Just when we are wondering how Bazil will break into the heavily guarded headquarters of his foes, the film finds familiar yet still fun ways of illustrated such stealth. Similarly, the last act “sting”, the carefully planned out ploy that will have Marconi and de Fenouillet doing most of the gang’s determined dirty work for them, percolates along with expert ease. Of course, there are kinks in the well-crafted strategy, surprises and stumbles that we come to expect from such exercises. Again, Jeanet makes these often clunky truisms work, from the sudden arrival of outsiders to a misjudged projectile. It’s amazing how often imagination and invention overrides truly obvious machinations.
The final flaw in Micmacs, however, is the abandonment of its main critical thesis. While not fatal, it does determine the film’s comparison to other classics. In fact, the filmmakers clearly recognize that they’ve gone astray, trying to regroup for a tagged on finale which hopes to flesh out our hatred for these conniving corporate heals. Sure, the kiss-off comes as a necessary reaction to the narrative, but for the most part, we’ve enjoyed the ride without mandating some kind of meaningful moral pronouncement. Yet since Micmac‘s fancies itself a scathing send-up of the stereotype, a surreal stitch up of Charlie Chaplin and circus sideshow that’s more wacky than worried about WMDs, it has to deliver such a denouement. Among the flotsam and jaded jettison of Hollywood’s pathetic prepackaged product, it’s a gem. Just remember it substitutes idiosyncrasies for insight (both behind and in front of the camera) and you’ll be just fine.