Micmacs is an extravagantly ambitious blend of Charlie Chaplin’s silent City Lights and Modern Times, Jacques Tati’s clever but impersonal visual comedies, and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 caper flicks. It is Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s first movie since his two hits starring Audrey Tautou: the whimsical Amélie and the impressive romantic drama A Very Long Engagement.
Jeunet’s last three films are pervaded by an exaltation of the pleasures of Frenchness. Amélie, the story of a shy, kind-hearted waitress who contrives elaborate plots to make life happier for her neighbors, became France’s biggest global smash, in part because Jeunet conjured up an idyllic, nostalgic Montmartre neighborhood as adorable as his star.
The Communist Party newspaper L’Humanité called Amélie fascist for aesthetically cleansing Paris of its countless immigrants, but diversity sells better in rhetoric than at the box office. Audiences around the world would rather dream of the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec or of Edith Piaf than the 21st Century megalopolis of bored suburban youths nightly setting cars on fire. Thus, Japanese tourists make pilgrimages to Amélie’s locations. (Overly susceptible Japanese visitors can come down with “Paris Syndrome” when their infatuated anticipations collide with Gallic brusqueness; the Japanese embassy repatriates them under medical supervision.)
Not all Americans, of course, like the French. Historically, Franco-American love-hate feelings have been the classic example of the Ben Franklin Effect: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.” After Ben talked the French government into bankrupting itself fighting Britain for our independence, the French loved us. (Witness their gift, the Statue of Liberty.) After we bailed them out in WWI, our Lost Generation loved them. By the time we rescued them again in 1944, they were resenting our generosity. Eventually, we started calling them cheese-eating surrender monkeys.
Deep down, though, we envy the French their cheese-eating quality of life. Jeunet’s three most recent movies call to mind the observation of the 2Blowhards blog that, “The key to understanding the French is grasping how rewarding the French find “Being French” to be. Hard though it is for an American to believe, the French wake up in the morning and look forward to a full day’s-worth of Being French.”
“Jeunet has many talents, including a James Cameron-like knack for intricate devices. But he lacks the gift for laugh-out loud humor. Like Amélie, Micmacs is less a comedy than, say, a charmedy.”
Jeunet begins Micmacs with the kind of somber intensity of imagery that distinguished his World War I movie, A Very Long Engagement. In a bravura wordless opening, a French soldier in Africa steps on a land mine; then, thirty years later, his orphaned son, Bazil (comedian Dany Boon, looking like David Niven on a bender) is a video store clerk. While happily watching The Big Sleep, he is accidentally shot in the head by a criminal on the street.
With the bullet still lodged in his brain, Bazil is eventually released from the hospital to earn his meager living as a street mime. According to Anatole France, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread,” but that’s what this little tramp is reduced to. He decides to take revenge on the CEOs of the two weapons manufacturers who ruined his life. Conveniently, their grand offices are located right across the street from each other.
This sounds grim, but the tone of Micmacs rapidly lightens, becoming more Amélie-like. Jeunet tries to resist creeping Amélization by setting much of the film in a junkyard, where Bazil finds refuge with a quirky fellowship of stereotypical Parisian misfits (including a goateed artist, a contortionist, and a human cannonball). Because this is a Jeunet movie, however, it’s a fabulously French-looking junkyard, the dump of Baron Haussmann’s dreams. Bazil conspires—aided by his ex-video clerk’s grasp of plot twists and his new friends’ reconfigured equipment—to bloodlessly goad the two merchants of death into ruining each other. Countless sight gags ensue—all clever, some astonishing—as multinational corporate technology is outfoxed by old-fashioned French miserliness.
Harry Truman complained that he wanted a one-armed economist because his current advisers were always telling him, “Well, Mr. President, on the one hand…” Truman would have hated my reaction to Micmacs.
On the one hand, Jeunet has many talents, including a James Cameron-like knack for intricate devices. On the other, he lacks the gift for laugh-out loud humor. Like Amélie, Micmacs is less a comedy than, say, a charmedy. It’s a thoroughly diverting 105-minute vacation in a France that never quite existed.
Jeunet bravely ignores targeting any demographic slice, making Micmacs for his own gleeful amusement over his own ingenuity. Indeed, the director seems to laugh harder at his tricks than his audience does. But that independence means it’s neither a kid’s movie nor, with its lack of character development, a grown-up’s film
Overall, Micmacs’s whimsy isn’t quite as stentorian as Amélie’s, but it doesn’t have Audrey Tautou, either.
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