Micmacs Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet

[Sony Pictures Classics; 2010]

Styles: fantasy adventure, heist
Others: City of Lost Children, Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Charming worlds filled with odd characters on even odder adventures is Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s calling card. He’s a French Terry Gilliam sans the crushing despair, with an added dash of the fantastical. Yet, there was a shift taking place in Jeunet’s films, as his last several films saw the fantastical slowly being replaced with a heightened realism. First with Amelie, which featured “real people” and no monstrosities, then more pronounced with A Very Long Engagement, Jeunet’s WWI love story. However, his latest film Micmacs is Jeunet á la 15 years ago, a strange journey most aesthetically aligned with City of Lost Children.

What is different here, and is not always the case with Jeunet, is that he attempts an overt political statement about the military-industrial complex. The unabashed nature of the critique, coupled with the way that this film is devoid of subplots, raises the question: With an “art-house” film, what’s more important — The Message or The Whimsy? (Also known as The Quirk – Wes Anderson; The Grit – Todd Solondz; The Cutesy – Miranda July, etc.) Is it more important that the film entertains, that it bear the marks of stylization and a unique vision, or that the film’s politics are well-reasoned and thought-provoking? Too often these constructions are unable to coexist.

Bazil (Dany Boon) survives being accidentally shot in the head during a drive-by shooting. Afterwards, he loses his job and works the street singing, dancing for change. Boon shines here, becoming a loveable Parisian Buster Keaton. He is brought into a family of oddballs living in a junkyard. The family includes the contortionist, the mother, the brainiac, the artist, the human cannonball, and the ethnographer. And that’s really all we know about these characters. This is too often how Jeunet frames his characters. We’re given a distinctive characteristic for an off-the-wall personality and are then asked to forget that they need to have emotions and a backstory before the audience can care about them. This is part of Jeunet’s peculiar stylization, but outside of Bazil, all of these characters are just caricatures.

When Bazil moves in, the family presents him with a bullet casing from the scene where he was shot, embossed with the emblem of an arms company. When he finds that company’s headquarters, he also discovers the company whose mine killed his father while working in the army. Bazil decides to seek revenge. Again, Jeunet asks us not to ask questions: Why doesn’t he try to hunt down the people who actually shot him instead of the people who made the bullet? Or the people who laid the mines? As the political statements begin, you have to wonder if it isn’t more complex than this. Isn’t one of the most fascinating parts of debates over the military-industrial complex the fact that it is near-impossible to pin responsibility on a single party? There are so many factors involved: the manufacturers, local government, federal government, militias purchasing the weapons, the individuals who join the militia. It’s complicated stuff. Jeunet uses a death in international warfare and a stray bullet from inner-city violence as a platform to skewer the manufacturer. I’m not defending the manufacturer, but Micmacs is oversimplifying the situation.

On the other hand, many of the criticisms wink at the audience, acknowledging the absurdity of the story. It is in the third act that the criticism becomes more somber, as the manufacturer bigwigs are held hostage to be shown pictures of children hit by stray bullets and made amputees by land mines. The scene is powerful, but it ultimately feels like a cheap appeal to the emotions with the message lost in a junkyard full of whimsy. Still, Micmacs is painfully beautiful from start to finish, each frame a painting, as to be expected from Jenuet. And while I reject the notion that the component parts of auteur-dom should overpower The Message, sometimes it’s funner to let go and take the ride.

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