World Wide Webbing
by Michael Joshua Rowin
Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France, Sony Pictures Classics
The last time we heard from Jean-Pierre Jeunet—the only person realistically competing with Luc Besson for title of France’s Most Popular Director—was 2004, when A Very Long Engagement followed his Amélie with an unflatteringly dour Audrey Tautou and an awkward blend of glossy WWI combat horror and search-for-a-lost-beloved romance. Engagement was no box office or critical bomb, but with it Jeunet’s limitations were made clear—for all his visual extravagance, “serious” and “epic” are two modes he just can’t pull off. And so he’s returned to his roots with the magical realist band-of-underdogs yarn Micmacs, reveling in a nearly (more on this qualification later) hermetically sealed fantasy world and constructing a narrative based exclusively on Rube Goldberg–esque set pieces performed by lovable and/or grotesque eccentrics.
This homecoming, of sorts, is welcome. Jeunet has always proudly embraced making movies with massively wide appeal, but since signature debut Delicatessen and the lesser but fitfully captivating The City of Lost Children, each attempt to reach an ever-larger audience has forced him to undermine his already narrow talents. A brief stint in Hollywood yielded the pointless and impersonal Alien Resurrection, while Amélie became an international megahit due to the calculated amplification of his worst sentimental tendencies, a problem further exacerbated in Engagement, a wannabe prestige picture. The problem the last two share is one of tone. Delicatessen and Children both achieved a careful balance of the macabre and the fanciful, making them the lightest of dark dystopian comedies but also far more satisfyingly strange and fun than the frustratingly compromised work of close contemporaries Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. A bold, exclamation-pointed comic-book style is Jeunet’s métier—this is a director who never met a Dutch angle or an extreme close-up on a leering countenance he didn’t like—but the best of his ideas have always been uncontrived and idiosyncratically playful. Think Delicatessen’s dilapidated apartment-building-turned-mousetrap and its complex network of connecting pipes and valves: Jeunet’s gleeful exploration of every slapstick possibility contained within this setting overtakes his weak metaphors on modern exploitation, to the film’s great benefit.
In Micmacs the pretext for complicatedly designed chaos is exceedingly flimsy, a conspicuous indulgence the film’s original title—Micmacs à tire-larigot, translated as “Non-stop Madness”—perfectly captures. Our protagonist is Bazil (Danny Boon), introduced in an almost completely dialogue-free prelude montage as a young boy orphaned after the death of his father while serving in Morocco and the hospitalization of his traumatized mother. Escaping from a strict Catholic school, Bazil winds up as a clerk at a small Parisian video store, where one night he accidentally witnesses a drive-by shooting and receives a bullet in the head. He survives with the bullet lodged precariously close to his brain, soon loses his job and apartment, and starts life anew as a homeless street performer. Eventually Bazil hooks up with and becomes one of a ragtag group of junkyard dealers living on the streets and under an ersatz pile of refuse they make their communal headquarters. Each has a specialty: big-boned matriarch cook Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau), tomboyish contortionist Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier), imaginative list-maker Remington (Omar Sy), guillotine-survivor and lock-picker Slammer (Jean-Pierre Merielle), refuse reappropriater and inventor Tiny Pete (Michel Crémadès), dimwitted but savant sight measurer Calculator (Marie-Julie Baup), and iron-stomached world record–obsessed stunt man Buster (Jeunet reliable Dominique Pinon).
When he discovers rival arms manufacturers (as headed by André Dussollier and Nicolas Marie, equally yet uniquely shady) produced the landmine that killed his father and the bullet that nearly offed him, Bazil enlists the talents of these Krazy Karacters for an elaborate revenge mission that causes the dueling companies to blame one another for various acts of sabotage and embark on a mutually destructive feud. The whole thing is just an excuse for a relentlessly paced grab bag of sight gags, wacky gadgets, convoluted trickery, digressive fantasy and flashback sequences no more substantial and no less fun than a Warner Bros. cartoon. A few fall extraordinarily flat—rushed animated sequences by Romain Segaud that visualize the mental riddles Bazil uses to relax during moments of extreme duress; a needless borrowing of Max Steiner’s score from The Big Sleep (we first see the adult Bazil lip-synching along to that classic’s gritty dialogue, one of several displays of supposedly endearing behavior from this Jeunetian dreamer); and some clunky fourth wall–breaking moments, including Micmacs billboard advertisements of the very scenes currently in action.
But most surprisingly land. The turgid melodrama of Engagement smothered Jeunet’s sense of the intricate and morbid, only hints of which surfaced in Marion Cotillard’s vengeance-seeking black widow and a Final Destination–style hangar explosion. Micmacs overcompensates with a deluge of gentler “ideas,” yet at the same time thankfully does away with the false emotional backdrops Jeunet has previously tried to pass off as providing “heart.” Thus a budding romance between Bazil (as thin a lead character as can be) and Elastic Girl is blessedly perfunctory, with Jeunet executing with careful timing and fine visual detail (whatever his faults Jeunet is not in the least bit sloppy) crackerjack heists centered around hollowed-out suitcases, cannonball launches, and string-tied, sleep potion–soaked sugar-cubes. Even the throwaways among the throwaways hit at a remarkable success rate: a blast turning a girlie calendar into a striptease flipbook, Dussollier doting upon his collection of body parts from famous people, Marié quizzing his usually neglected son on notorious air bombings.
These constitute a clever smattering of black humor in an otherwise breezy film, but the egregious intrusion of real-life atrocities into Micmacs’ sunny imaginarium might be considered irredeemable. Jeunet seems to have channeled his penchant for ghoulish spectacle and schmaltzy nostalgia into a naïve indictment against the global arms trade, in which buffoonish masters of war are toppled by the scrappy derring-do of society’s most invisible citizens. The climax is especially queasy, as Dussollier and Marié—thinking they’ve been kidnapped and brought to the Middle East (the Micmacs crew renders this plausible in a particularly inventive sequence)—admit to their crimes in front of a turbaned and burka’d kangaroo court that forces them to speak under threat of grenade and landmine. It’s the film’s only significant wrong move, but I still give it the benefit of the doubt—it’s not as if the film’s portrayal of homelessness has any grounding in actual human experience either. Micmacs instead works best in the tradition of Topkapi, The Italian Job, The Sting, and Wallace & Gromit—as spies-and-saboteurs slapstick—and while that may not serve as an endorsement to those wishing for another Amélie or those who refuse to bother with Jeunet altogether, greater praise doesn’t exist for this soap bubble of a film.