Joe Nawaz finds Micmacs predictably enjoyable, but still predictable
It’s been five years since A Very Long Engagement, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s last slice of international blockbusting Gallic whimsy, which in turn was four years after the Oscar nominated Amelie. Micmacs, French right down to its titular slanginess, was just about due then.
The monstrous world-wide success of Amelie and A Very Long Engagement has afforded Jeunet the cash and the remote Hollywood backing to make anything he likes. Whoever he happens to be collaborating with, Jeunet's cinematic vision, his constructed world, is consistently off-kilter stories, are distinctly his own.
The results have never been less than interesting. Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children were two impeccably shaded movies that bridged the figurative gap between nightmare and fairytale, lending a childlike perspective to an adult world. As a contrary old pervert, I even loved the sub-Freudian horrors of his generally unlamented take on the Alien franchise.
After Amelie and Engagement, Micmacs then, is the third movie in a row that Jeunet has set in his heavily romanticised, widescreen version of France. More specifically it’s set in his beloved Paris, a city which, as a filmmaker, he claims he cant help 'emptying the streets and cleaning up the sky' for, thereby making him possibly the first virtual environmentalist in cinema history.
The story concerns hapless Bazil – a double victim of the arms industry. His soldier father was killed by a land mine in the Moroccan desert and Bazil, the victim of a random richochet, is himself accidentally shot in the head by a bullet which could at any moment enter his brain and kill him.
It’s as a wandering, winsome vagrant that he happens upon a ‘family’ of eccentric second hand dealers who live in an Aladdin’s cave of bric-a-brac beneath a scrap heap in down town Paris. We have Jeunet’s full tableau of grotesques here. Each member of the family (as in the seven dwarfs) is given disposition-associated nomenclature. Therefore, we have Mamma Chow who cooks a lot; Buster, who keeps busting up his body; and Elastic Girl who, well, guess for yourself.
This unlikely bunch of disenfranchised heroes embark on an elaborate Mission Impossible meets Buster Keaton (try pitching that to an American studio) caper to exact revenge on the two unpleasant arms dealers responsible for Bazil’s misfortune. This leads to some excellent set pieces involving silent comedy, slapstick and the ingenious use of everyday objects.
These painstakingly crafted cinematic vignettes are the most satisfying moments of the film – particularly the daring break in to one of the dealer’s apartments, involving a drugged sugar cube, an air vent and a rutting couple.
Jeunet’s rendering of contemporary Paris is undeniably appealing and for such an unreconstructed romanticist, he allows the camera leave to stray from traditional Parisian cliché quite freely. He sympathetically patchworks the architectural old and new, thus we have a scene at the Musée d’Orcy followed by a trendy coffee shop followed by the Metro followed by a skit in the sports wear department of a store.
There are other uncharacteristic concessions to modernity such as the use of YouTube to undermine the villains and the sheen of contemporary elegance in arms dealer Marconi’s impeccable batchelor pad – but I don’t think that’s meant to be a good thing.
A lot of the problem with Jeunet’s enduringly idiosyncratic aesthetic (no matter how much he tries to superficially tamper with the template) is that it’s so familiar to us now that we’re no longer necessarily enchanted with it. The exemplary cinematography, settings, performances (everything, in fact) are inevitably dulled by our own sense of déjà vu
The arms dealers played by Andre Dussollier and Nicolas Marie are undoubtedly malevolent and the arms industry is a great target, but the villains are portrayed as simple fist shaking cartoon buffoons; more Tex Avery than Costa Gavras.
Jeunet débutante Dany Boon makes a convincing and charming Bazil – he steps onto the screen as if from a different, more emphatically silent cinematic era – his comic timing, expressive facial tics and physicality are incredibly watchable.
It’s also always a joy to see Jeunet regular Dominic Pinon back on the big screen. For me he’s the great character actor of our time and the running theme of the director putting him in physical danger in every movie is wonderfully present and correct. The cast in general are charming and, that dread word, ‘quirky’, as you’d expect, but again – we’ve seen it all before.
Francophile cineastes and even lovers of Stella Artois adverts will of course love this. It is stylistically impeccable. It’s not a bad movie at all, just another movie of its kind. Jeunet himself has said that Micmacs is like a cross between Amelie and Delicatessen, which probably says more than any lengthily detailed reflection.
Indulge this final foolish flight of fancy: Jean-Pierre Jeunet famously declined to direct Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in 2007. The last time he took on a major Holywood franchise and fluffed it up, he subsequently made Amelie. Perhaps it’s about time he properly fluffed up again.
Micmacs runs in the Queen's Film Theatre until March 14.