Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, January 23, 2017

Director Report Card: Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2009)

6. Micmacs
Micmacs à tire-larigot

“Micmacs” is a landmark film for Jean-Pierre Jeunet but not necessarily in a positive way. His previous two movies received a lot of attention, getting nominated for awards and earning positive reviews all over the world. “Amelie,” and “A Very Long Engagement” to a lesser degree, were break-out French films, connecting with English speaking audiences. “Micmacs” - shortened from the French title of “Micmacs a tire-larigot” - was none of those things. The reviews were positive but not overwhelmingly so. The film came and went from theaters without much attention. “Micmacs” is a movie that just kind of disappeared. Let's try and figured out why.

As a child, Bazil's father was killed while attempting to deactivate a landmine. As an adult, he lives a peaceful existence as a video store clerk. This is interrupted when a robbery goes wrong outside, leaving a bullet embedded in Bazil's head. Upon awakening, he looses his job and ends up on the streets. Soon, he meets up with a group of eccentrics, a family of quirky individuals living in a junk yard. After discovering the arms dealing company that made the bullet in his head and the mine that killed his father, Bazil devises a scheme of revenge against the weapons manufacturers.

“Micmacs” has an unlikely one-sentence summary. This is a whimsical comedy about the arms trade. That one line might make you expect a biting satire about the corporations and millionaires who profit off the death and destruction caused by guns and bombs. Considering the director doesn't usually approach political subjects, it might not be surprising to read that “Micmacs” isn't exactly a cutting edge satire. Instead, it essentially exports the wacky, humorous stylings the director displayed in “Delicatessen” and “Amelie,” using it to comment on a very serious real world issue.

After going a little light on his trademark style with “A Very Long Engagement,” the classical Jeunet hallmarks return with “Micmacs.” The film has the madcap comic energy of his earliest motion pictures. The family Bazil integrates himself with carries a circus like tone, with a contortionists and a human cannonball being among their numbers. A fascination with chain reaction-style comic set pieces return in a big way. While “Micmacs” is clearly set in present day France, the film feels more abreast with “The City of Lost Children” than the director's more recent features. The set design is more exaggerated, the urban setting more stylized. There's even a cameo appearances from two of “Delicatessen's” main characters.

“Micmacs” also presents an opportunity for Jeunet to indulge his love of surreal set pieces. Since Bazil has a bullet lodged in his brain, he's prone to elaborate hallucinations. After discovering the office building of the weapons manufacturer, Bazil imagines a whole orchestra playing behind him. After awakening in a car, he has a dream about a soccer field exploding with landmines. When certain of his death, Bazil thinks about the unlikely demises of various historical figures, which is presented as a demented cartoon. Even when not hallucinating, Bazil is a quirky character. Such as the clownish acts he performs on the street as a beggar. Dany Boon's game performance helps sell the character's comically fragmented state of mind.

A quirky love story has also, over the years, emerged as a trademark of Jeunet. “Micmacs” naturally features one too. Of all the friends Bazil make after moving into the junk yard, one in particular catches his attention. The character is only known as the Elastic Girl. A contortionist, she's introduced by unfolding herself out of a refrigerator. Throughout the film, she curls up inside a number of unlikely places: Shipping boxes, cabinets, closets, under blankets. She bickers with Bazil in a way that suggests mutual interest. Before the end, she outright declares her feelings for him, Bazil going along with it. It's not as well realized or touching as the love stories in “Delicatessen,” “Amelie,” or “A Very Long Engagement” but it's still pretty cute. Julie Ferrier is clearly the stand-out performer of the film, bringing a striking screen presence to the part.

The group of friends Bazil makes in the junk yard are clearly designed to be a family. Mama Chow, played by a warmth exuding Yolande Moreau, is clearly the matriarch of the group. She cooks the meals for everyone, seeing the guests as her children. Slammer, played by a charming jean-Pierre Marielle, emerges as the father figure. A former convict, hence the nickname, Slammer survived execution by guillotine and enjoys showing off the scar. Despite his sordid past, he's a welcoming, friendly figure. There's even a duo of little kids wandering around the lair, who admire the other members of the family that way you would an aunt or uncle.

“Micmacs” comes dangerously close to defining its cast members as nothing but quirks. Luckily, a talented cast makes them more detailed. Dominique Pinon, in his required appearance, plays Buster. A former human cannonball, Buster is adamant about breaking new records concerning distance and speed. Pinon brings the same likable clownish energy to the part that we've come to expect from him. Michel Crémadès plays Tiny Pete, a highly Jeunet-esque character who makes clockwork inventions out of trash. Such as walking tables or robotic strongmen. Omar Sy is very funny as Remington, a writer who constantly speaks in highly dramatic narration. My favorite of “Micmacs'” quirky family is Marie–Julie Baup as the Calculator, an eccentric girl who can intuitively measure anything. Baup has a twitchy energy that I like.

While Jeunet has frequently peppered his films with homages to silent cinema, “Micmacs” is one of the first times he's explicitly homaged another movie. During Bazil's last night in the video store, he watches a French dubbed tape of “The Big Sleep.” The opening credits that follow are done in the style of a 1940s movie. While “Micmacs'” plot is not quite as convoluted as a Raymond Chandler adaptation, it does feature instigators brewing trouble for bad men in high places. Later in the film, several scenes are set in the kind of wide, desert vistas that bring spaghetti westerns to mind. From this angle, “Micmacs” reminds me of “A Fistful of Dollars,” about an outsider playing two enemies against each other. Either way, it's clear that Jeunet had other films on his mind while making this one.

The funniest scenes in “Micmacs” are those devoted to Jeunet's trademark chain reactions. The best of which comes first. A weapons deal between the villains and a collection of shady crime lords is interrupted at an airport. Bazil's friends pose as pushy salesmen and distracting tourist. This allows Buster to entice a dog with a sausage. After the canine is let loose by Elastic Girl, a delightfully mad cap chase breaks out. Later, the night watchman at the villain's apartment complex is distracted by an adult actress performing vocally in a window across the street. While he watches, the gang slips a sleep inducing sugar cube into his coffee. Later, Buster gets to show off his abilities as a human cannon ball. But a malfunction happens, sending him wildly off course. That scene represents “Micmacs” at its silliest but even gags that big don't feel out of place.

And what of the bad guys at the center of “Micmacs,” the men who happily make themselves rich supplying weapons to war zones? Nicolas Marie plays Francois Marconi, a CEO who likes to compare himself to poets. He lives in a penthouse suit and constantly belittles everyone around him, even his young son. Marie has fun playing the part as an utterly smug bastard, the kind of character you anticipating getting his just desserts. Across the street is the rival CEO, Andre Dussollier's Nicholas De Fenouillet. Where Marconi is smug, DeFenouillet is odd. He collects the body parts of famous people, reveling in his wealth. Both actors excel in their parts, creating adversaries you can root against.

As I said, “Micmacs” is mostly too silly to be accepted as a statement about arms dealing. Except for that climatic scene. The arms dealers are kidnapped and dropped into a desert zone. Stack atop each other, they are marched through a valley littered with landmines. Near-by, women in burkas watch, while holding pictures of children missing limbs. Under pressure, the arms dealers confess to all the terrorists and criminals they've sold their guns and bombs to. In one moment, the film brings the effects the sale of implements of death have on innocent people, an effective sequence. The tone then ricochets back around to silly and comedic, in a reveal too satisfying to discuss here.

Did “Micmacs” deserve to slip so totally under the radar? The film can't compare to Jeunet's best work. It doesn't have the raw creativity of his early, sci-fi flicks. Nor does it have the genuine emotion of “Amelie.” However, it is a lot of fun. The film sees the director returning to the anarchic spirit of his earliest films. The script makes one or two interesting statements about the world we live in. Mostly, “Micmacs” cooks up a collection of lovable, eccentric goofballs. The warmth among Bazil's new family and the camaraderie the filmmaker feels with them might be the main reason you return to “Micmacs,” a minor but gratifying motion picture. [Grade: B]

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