Wednesday, January 5, 2011

MICMACS (MicMacs a Tire-Larigot, 2009)

Jean-Pierre Jeunet declares his influences early in his latest film. He shows his hero watching The Big Sleep and lip-syncing Bogart's dubbed-French dialogue. The opening credits are in black and white, and in English, and the music of Max Steiner plays over them, as it will through much of the film. All the zaniness to come, then, is a riff on classic Warner Bros. melodrama -- or is it more of an homage to the cartoons of Tex Avery, one of which is excerpted in the scene when the hero finds himself fired from his video-store job? MicMacs is definitely more plausible as a cartoon homage, but all these overt acknowledgments of Hollywood influences strike me as misdirection after the fact. For one thing, the overall flavor of the thing remains very French. For another, if it reminded me of Hollywood at all, it was reminiscent less of any Warners or Steiner-scored story than of a Frank Capra film. If you're a cosmopolitan film buff with a long view of history, think of MicMacs as a mix of Les Vampires and You Can't Take It With You and you've just about nailed it.

There's a little Mel Brooks in the mix as well. Our hero hears the Steineresque score swell up on the soundtrack, but the camera reveals a symphony orchestra behind him -- or is it just a brain-damaged hallucination?

The Capraesque revenge tale deals with Bazil (Dany Boon), who as a child is orphaned when his father is killed by a land mine in the Western Sahara and his grief-stricken mother is taken to the nervous hospital. As a grown man, Bazil is the archetypal video-store clerk until he's shot in the head through a freak accident. The bullet can't be removed without rendering Bazil a vegetable; left there, it could kill him at any moment. Released from the hospital, he learns, as you learned a moment ago, that he'd been laid off. He becomes an almost Chaplinesque figure, pantomiming for coins, until he falls in with an eccentric extended "family" of junkyard scavengers, inventors, contortionists, etc. They join him in his madcap quest for revenge on the arms dealers whose mines and bullets have marred his life. A human cannonball, an African conspiracy, Benito Mussolini's eye and Marilyn Monroe's tooth all figure in, and Bazil must often literally think fast to keep himself from dropping dead on short notice.

Whimsy: above, a weightlifting robot; below, Jeunet mascot Dominique Pinon as the record-seeking human cannonball.

With a filmography ranging from Delicatessen to Amelie, Jeunet should have any viewer on whimsy alert. I've been able to tolerate and even enjoy his past work (excepting Amelie, which I haven't seen), but MicMacs is the first Jeunet film I've actually disliked. Its heart is in the right place and it picks the right targets, but the fatal flaw of self-amusement poisons the atmosphere throughout. The film is too cute, too quaint, too self-consciously adorable for its own good. Maybe French viewers and Europeans in general have a greater tolerance for such labored whimsy, but I found it insufferable from an early point. In the film's defense, I think Jeunet is quite consciously employing groaner humor, such as the historically inevitable joke on the phonetic intersection of French poetry and American one-man army films. An arms dealer boasts to his son that he compared himself to Rimbaud in a speech. "Do you know who Rimbaud is?" he asks the boy. "You need to work out more," the child answers.

Overall, however, the best I can say is that it didn't get that much more insufferable as it went on. The complicated maneuvers of the plot may keep people interested, and the film grows slightly more tolerable as it gets more active. In sum, MicMacs seems like a step backward for Jeunet following his least generic film, A Very Long Engagement. But to be fair, for a contemporary fantasy film you could probably do worse. I tremble to think what an American MicMacs would look like.

1 comment:

Jason Marshall said...

I didn't much like this movie either. Reading your recap of the plot makes it sound much more promising than it turns out to be. I just don't think Jeunet got the balance right. He tries to make a serious point while winking at the audience. Now that's been done well before, like in "Dr. Strangelove", but Kubrick's movie was perfectly balanced. This one isn't. It's frustrating, precious, and, in the end, in bad taste.