Is there such a thing as oppressive whimsy?
A lighthearted style so heavy-handed that it threatens to overwhelm the senses? If such a thing is possible, French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet certainly embodies the oxymoron. That’s not a criticism of the man, mind you, but a testament to his single-minded ability to create films that are simultaneously bright and dark, cheerful and cruel, ugly and gorgeous.
Jeunet is one of those auteurs who needs no detailed introduction or explanation. One glance at his résumé and you know what you’re in for. Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, Alien: Resurrection, Amélie, A Very Long Engagement—each one serves as a self-contained example of the self-taught director’s trademark style of darkly whimsical, retro-futuristic urban fantasy. Few filmmakers (Terry Gilliam, certainly. Woody Allen, arguably. Martin Scorsese, mostly.) have produced as consistent and recognizable a body of work.
Jeunet keeps it up with his latest film, Micmacs—a scrappy, junkyard fantasy that plays out like a revenge thriller starring The Little Rascals. Our main protagonist here is Bazil (Dany Boon, The Valet). Bazil hasn’t had an easy life. When Bazil was just a young lad, his father was killed by a land mine while serving overseas in the military. Scraping by as an adult, Bazil is accidentally sidelined by a stray bullet from a passing gunfight. With a lump of lead buried in his skull, Bazil is unable to work and soon finds himself homeless. Fortunately, he is adopted by a motley clan of street dwellers call Micmacs. Each of the Micmacs displays a unique talent: criminal, writer, inventor, daredevil, cook, contortionist, human calculator. Together they form a highly functional dysfunctional family.
The Micmacs make their living as scrap hunters and recyclers. Their home is a magical junkyard—an Aladdin’s cave teeming with bric-a-brac just waiting to be transformed into helpful Rube Goldberg-style machines. This setting allows Jeunet to let his imagination off the chain, creating all sorts of scrapyard wonders with which his characters can play.
Of course, just as a film needs a plot, a man needs a purpose. Urged on by his new friends, Bazil settles on his life’s purpose—plotting revenge against the weapons manufacturers who have indirectly made his life a living hell. Putting the unique talents of the Micmacs to work and enhancing them with some fiendishly clever trash heap creations, Bazil sets two wonderfully nasty CEOs (André Dussollier, Nicolas Marié) of a couple rival arms companies against one another. The spy-fi machinations and manipulations of the Micmacs are as intricate (and difficult to keep up with) as those of a Mission: Impossible film.
There are many characters here with much to do, and few of them are sketched with anything other than the broadest of strokes. Even with a slight love interest added to the mix, the characters are mostly here to just move along the madcap story line. Bazil, with his malfunctioning brain, makes for a lovable sad sack of a hero; but he’s nowhere near the intricate, indelible creation that is Ms. Amélie Poulain. Still, let yourself be swept along, and you’ll find plenty to admire in this rattletrap creation.
What’s different for this particular whirligig is Jeunet’s newfound sense of morality. With its plot about corporate death merchants and its mentions of Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot-button issues, Micmacs is the filmmaker’s most timely film. Though it looks like something from a different era, it clearly exists in today’s sociopolitical climate. Occasionally, this infusion of grim, modern reality threatens to derail the breezy fantasy of it all.
As always, Jeunet’s visual style is lovely. Burnished, sepia-toned cinematography washes over a landscape of junkyards, back alleyways, bulbous old vehicles, oddball characters and the occasional picturesque Parisian street corner. But don’t get too used to the traditional images. Jeunet likes to find beauty in the broken, the wrinkly, the curiously lumpen. Continuing his visual invention, Jeunet pushes the camera through walls, underground, high overhead—doing everything but juggling the damn thing to keep viewers’ attentions glued to the screen.
Micmacs probably won’t qualify as your favorite Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. The moral is too blunt, the characters too subservient to the rapid-fire story. Still, you can’t accuse Jeunet of false advertising. The film’s original title (Micmacs á Tire-Larigot) translates as something like “Way Too Much Craziness.” If you’re in the mood for funny, loopy, slightly surreal slapstick, though, too much craziness is better than none.