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Film Review: Micmacs à tire-larigot

Micmacs à tire-larigot (2009; Directed Jean-Pierre Jeunet)

Note: A truncated version of this review appeared on PopMatters’ list of Best Independent/International Films of 2010 on January 3, 2011.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest hyper-Gallic opus of overwhelming whimsy is bursting with visual invention but seems to have no central animating principle or meaning. Like the various contraptions and schemes that drive its screwball plot, Micmacs is an exquisite Rube Goldberg device of a movie that impresses with its elaboration but not with its signification.

This property is listed for what? Man, Parkdale is getting expensive...

This is unfortunate, because the advantages inherent to Micmacs should lead us to expect more. Following the wonderful, elegiac A Very Long Engagement and the duly-anointed film classic Amelie, Jeunet could be said to be at or near his peak as a filmmaker, and he certainly delivers his share of memorable and witty imagery, as always. He’s also got a likable lead (Dany Boon, a sort of French Adam Sandler with oodles more talent) and a rogue’s gallery of amusing comic actors in support (including previous Jeunet faves Yolande Moreau and Dominique Pinon). It’s all frightfully light and clever, but basically never congeals into anything more substantial, as his previous two masterstrokes had an impressive habit of doing.

Plot-wise, Boon is Bazil, a down-on-his-luck gent who chooses to blame his lot in life on two arms-dealing corporations and their suave chief executives: one, run by an aristocratic collector of the body bits of historical figures (Andre Dussollier), made the landmine that killed his father in North Africa, while the other, led by a more modern exec (Nicolas Marie) who compares himself to French poets, made a bullet that became lodged in his brain, costing him his dream job in a video store, threatening his life at any given moment, and leading him into a transient downward spiral. Finding himself homeless and living from day-to-day (these scenes have a Chaplinesque sad humour to them, with Boon as a decent enough proxy for the Tramp), he is adopted by a typically Jeunetian “family” of junkyard misfits who possess various abilities that will come in handy in Bazil’s plan to exact revenge on cartoon-villainish arms dealers.

Inside your average call center operation.

For all its amusements and bursts of visual wit, however, there’s something vaguely middling about the final product of Jeunet’s feverish Gallic mind here. The narrative center is a big part of the problem; Jeunet’s touch as an auteur is entirely too light and generous to properly execute the vicious strokes of a revenge plot. Micmacs is certainly a comedy, but Jeunet evades the dark humour of his earlier work like the plague where it might have done some good and fit the contours of the narrative conventions of the revenge genre a little better. Like many a caper movie, there’s also never much doubt about the outcome of the payback scheme, and rarely a lick of tension that it might not get pulled off. The critique of defense contractors is also slightly facile and emotional, with none of the sharpness of a film on the subject like, say, Lord of War. It’s also no help that the romance subplot is weak, perfunctory, and all wrong. After Jeunet’s last two films, whose love stories were such multifaceted delights that drove the proceedings, Bazil’s back-and-forth with the contortionist is just sort of lame.

If there’s an image that typifies the talented Jeunet’s slight misfire with Micmacs, it’s the recurring meta-joke of the various billboards advertising the movie that appear in the movie. Mildly amusing enough on its own, it’s the sort of overly-clever, self-referential visual gag that Jeunet throws himself into with relish in this film at the expense of the more engaging elements and sneaking outlines of profundity that he’s managed in the past. It’s par for the course in a film of meticulous clockwork construction that concludes its complex machinations by ringing a metaphorical tiny little bell. In Micmacs, all is a joke to Jeunet, and the punchline says less about ourselves than it does about the all-clever Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

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