[30 November 2009]
The 2009 Cinecity Film Festival in Brighton opened with a preview of Micmacs à tire-larigot, the first film from Jean-Pierre Jeunet since 2004’s A Very Long Engagement. The film proclaims itself to be a satire on the world of arms trading. The official press release states: “Is it better to live with a bullet lodged in your brain, even if it means you might drop dead any time? Or would you rather have the bullet taken out and live the rest of your life as a vegetable? Are zebras white with black stripes or black with white stripes? Is scrap metal worth more than landmines? Can you get drunk from eating waffles? Can a woman fit inside a refrigerator? What’s the human cannonball world record? Find out answers to these questions and more. A comedy in the vein of Delicatessen, and Amélie.”
The film tells the story of a group of misfits who aim to bring down two large arms manufacturers. The leader of the group is Bazil (Danny Boon), the son of a bomb disposal expert who died in the Moroccan desert from an explosion. His father’s death traumatizes young Bazil and years later he becomes the victim of his own unexpected accident, leaving a bullet lodged in his brain and the chance that he will die at any moment. The accident has crucial repercussions in his personal life. He looses his job and his apartment and soon teams up with a rag-tag group that helps him devise a plot to trap the weapons manufacturers. The story of Bazil’s revenge is populated by Jeunet’s cast of cartoon-like characters,each unique with their foibles and abilities. Frist there is Calculette (Marie-Julie Baup), a young woman that can instantly estimate weights, distances and speeds and an inventor whose junk yard creations add more efficiency to the plan. The narrative has a basic plot structure that follows the cause and effect chain. However, Jeunet, following the familiar cinematographic aesthetic of Delicatessen and Amélie, organises the diegesis to emphasize the instant rather than the whole. From this perspective the script serves as a means of constructing gags and humoristic moments, each perfectly composed.
The compositions employ farcical elements and succeed one another in a very frantic rhythm. At times one wonders whether they are serving the narrative or simply indulging the director’s visual virtuosity. The excessive and, at times, superfluous use of extra-diegetic music adds a mellow element to the film, facilitating the emotional responses on the part of the audience while helping the viewer to immerse easily into the narrative. The real problem with Micmacs is that it does not outdo its comparisons. Jeunet follows the same successful pattern of Delicatessen and Amélie, which relie on the perception of the world as play, but what results is an entertaining movie that doesn’t really reveal anything to the spectator who has followed Jeunet’s previous works.
One could argue that Jeunet demonstrates nostalgia for the cinema of Charlie Chaplin and his compatriot Rene Clair, exhibiting a sort of desire for a lost world of cinematic innocence. However, the difference lies in the fact that the aforementioned directors, Chaplin in particular, employed gags and performativity with the view to problematizing the diegesis and creating a complex narrative structure that negated any notions of coherent individuality. In Chaplin and Clair the boundaries between the individual as a performer and as a social being are constantly placed into doubt, whereas the austerity in the plot line juxtaposes moments of entertainment with tragic ones. Consequently, the contradictions are not resolved and at times comic moments cannot be distinguished from tragic ones.
Jeunet, inversely, offers a film that lacks any analytical thrust. The satire on the arms trade is flat and propagates a clichéd cinematic portrayal of “good” versus “evil.” In this context the characters look like one-dimensional caricatures. This results in a superficial indictment of war, without being able to relate it to broader social and political problems. On this account the film’s politics is pretentious—and as its form demonstrates nostalgia for a world of cinematic innocence, one could argue that its politics put forward nostalgia for a world in which the boundaries between good and evil, masters and slaves, oppressors and oppressed are securely demarcated. The most hilarious and entertaining scene in the film proves that. Near the end of the narrative the two arms traders are captured by Bazil’s group, who are dressed in Muslim uniforms and pretend that they are going to execute them. In a final attempt to exonerate themselves, the two traders apologise for all the mourning they have caused to families in Iraq and Afghanistan and try to gain the group’s sympathy by admitting that in the past they sold guns to the IRA and Taliban. The connoted message is clear: the world of arms trade lacks morality and is capable of anything that can increase its profit. Evidently, such an oversimplification keeps the audience in a secure cinematic position that fails to display its own complicity in the formation of history. While the fundamental premise of political art is challenging the audience’s position by exposing its responsibility in the formation of history (one could recall Reiner Werner Fassbinder’s films that demystified the pretentious ignorance on the part of the German people for the Nazi atrocities) Micmacs proceeds to retain a secure narrative structure that does not challenge the audience. Seen this way, the film fails to do anything but put forward a generalising conclusion that wars, such as the one in Iraq and Afghanistan, are the product of the greediness on the part of the weapons industry. Undoubtedly, the film’s politics is superficial and one would expect something more sophisticated by Jeunet.