SXSW Film: ‘Micmacs’

The word Micmacs, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie) explained before the screening of his new film, is slang for “shenanigans,” a word which sounded impossibly playful in Jeunet’s thick French accent. “Impossibly playful” is also one way to describe the film, which is as sweet and joyful and imperfect a revenge fantasy you might hope to see.

Micmacs begins unexpectedly, for a Jeunet film: A soldier steps on a landmine. The strongest response to this is displayed by a donkey, which runs off, honking loudly. Back in France, the father’s death has a greater effect on his young son Bazil, who finds clues to the cause of his father’s death in a box of the man’s possessions.

Years later, Bazil (Dany Boon) is working in a video store when a stray bullet lodges itself in his head. Bazil survives, but not without losing his job and his apartment. Before long, he’s taken in by a gaggle of oddballs — among them a contortionist, an inventor, a human calculator and Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon as a would-be world-record setter — who live as a patchwork family outside normal society. Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau), who lost her own children in a hall of mirrors, feeds and scolds them all in turn.

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Jeunet’s films conjure a good deal of magic by finding the fantastical in the seemingly ordinary. His characters see things less for what they are than what they have the potential to be (the Rube Goldberg-y contraptions that make use of everyday objects; the box of knickknacks that sets off a life-changing series of events), which heightens their disconnection from normality. Color, in Jeuent’s off-kilter worlds, manifests in a gorgeous and unsettling manner: In Micmacs, the golden tones of the cluttered oddball family’s den contrast with the burnished richness of an arms dealer’s home; cool green seeps in for discomfort and the unforgiving brightness of reality is a rare sight. Jeunet and cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata (La Vie en Rose) give Bazil’s story a sepia-toned sheen that amps up its fable-like quality. The world is a cold, hard place, but find your people, and warmth and richness will fill your days.

Warmth and richness and revenge, that is. When Bazil figures out that two rival arms dealers are responsible for his father’s death and the bullet in his brain, he embarks on a quest for payback that requires the special skills of every one of his new family members. This is how Jeunet’s stories work: Unlikely bonds between (good, talented) people will change the world.

Micmacs is clever, sweet, beautifully shot and disappointingly unsatisfying. Its self-awareness is quirky and cute but to no real end; the posters for the movie that appear within the movie are there because they make Jeunet, and the audience, laugh, but do they — or the unlikely scenarios, the gizmos, the inventions — have anything under the imaginative surface? There’s certainly relevance in the idea of the cast-offs of society taking down those rich white men who manufacture the means of destruction for people the world over, but it’s lost amid the tricks played and traps set. Jeunet is borrowing a very real issue for a very pretend story; he said in the after-show Q&A that the characters are the Seven Dwarfs, or the toys of Toy Story, which makes them seem even more unreal. As another writer points out in a thoughtful piece here (‘ware spoilers), the film’s finale, shared with the whole world via YouTube, rings false as soon as the trick is revealed. I was more unsettled by Jeunet’s thoughtless appropriation than I was delighted by the story of misfits getting the upper hand. (A side plot involving a group of African men looking to buy arms for an unspecified, presumably fictional dictator, is also uncomfortably poorly thought-out.)

In the Q&A, Jeunet said that all of his films are about an orphan fighting a monster. Sometimes the monster is literal (had he made The Life of Pi, as he said he almost did, the monster would have been a tiger); sometimes it’s a pair of greedy arms dealers. But the monster is also loneliness. His oddballs slip into a self-selected, insular, comforting but small world of their own, where strange things are possible and reality has only a tenuous grasp. It’s escapism on a grand and beautiful scale, and sometimes it works absolute wonders. This time, I couldn’t quite join the trip.

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