Micmacs (Review)

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet disappoints with his latest film Micmacs, a frivolous piece of exploitation with pretentions of seriousness.  All the quirkiness and whimsy that Juenet perfected in Amélie is shoe-horned into a much darker story here and it simply doesn’t work.  The story centers on the quirky (an adjective that will be used a lot in this review) Bazil (the uncharacteristically boring Dany Boon), a man set on revenge.  A landmine killed his father in North Africa when Bazil was a small boy.  And if that wasn’t traumatizing enough, as an adult he is accidently shot in the head requiring a long convalescence during which the world moved on without him.  Jobless, homeless, and penniless, he is adopted by a motley band of junkyard scavengers and lives with them among the refuse of industrial Paris.  During a day of scavenging Bazil accidently discovers the factories of rival arms manufacturers across the street from one another: one manufactured the mine that killed his father and the other the bullet that is still lodged in his head.  He hatches a plot to undermine the companies and intensify the rivalry between their two presidents.

There is potential here for a wickedly dark comedy, but Jeunet punts and goes the easy way out, sticking with a standard revenge fantasy.  His junkyard pals are all absurdly quirky, each with a special skill (conveniently explained as he meets each one) that we know will be useful later in the film.  One is a contortionist, another can calculate the weights and compositions of objects with one glance, another can build clever mechanisms from scrap metal, etc.  It’s a good thing they needed someone to impersonate the emissary of an African revolutionary or the black guy wouldn’t have had much to do.

I liked some of the intricate schemes they execute, but that wasn’t enough for me to enjoy the movie.  I mean what is Jeunet rallying against here?  What is he trying to say?  Arms dealers are bad people?  Everyone knows that already!  Even arms dealers know they are rotten people.  This is a deadly serious subject and everything is just too quirky and lightweight to deal with the subject properly.  It’s a bit like crossing Amélie with Helter Skelter.

Not that a filmmaker couldn’t make a biting satire about arms manufacturers, but it would need to be a lot bolder than what we have here.  The rival presidents, wonderfully played by André Dussollier (the narrator of Amélie) and Nicholas Marié (both in the picture on the left), are the easy targets, but they aren’t really the bad guys when we stop to think about it.  So what if they sell arms illegally to terrorist organizations and revolutionary juntas?  All arms dealers do that, even if it isn’t done directly.  That is the dirty secret Micmacs is too timid to take on.  The entire system stinks.  It’s easy to point the finger at the presidents of the companies, but what about the shareholders who demand dividends without wanting to know too much about how the company turned a profit?  (And what kind of ghoulish people knowingly invest in an arms company?)  What about the governments that demand their products for their wars?  What about the dealers who sell the products of even the most scrupulously legit companies on the black market?  What about the drug cartels, organized crime, and power-hungry revolutionaries who actually use them?  Why isn’t the man who ordered the mine to be planted that killed Bazil’s father guiltier than the man who manufactured it?  Why isn’t the man who pulled the trigger which planted the bullet in Bazil’s head guiltier than the man who sold it to him?

It might feel good in an exploitative movie like this to cast Dussollier and Marié’s characters as the obvious villains, but if Jeunet wanted to make a satire that truly said something he would have asked these questions instead of glazing over them for the obvious gags.  He could have still done it with a sense of humor.  Stanley Kubrick made a truly funny movie about the insanity of Cold War defense strategy in Dr. Strangelove.  There were no obvious villains there; he explored, through comedy, how fear and irrationality were the true enemies, not easy targets like the Premiere of the USSR.

The climax was the most distasteful part of the film.  The rival presidents have been kidnapped and are presented with photos of children who had been killed or injured with their weapons.  Of course they crumble and beg for forgiveness.  This is when I knew Jeunet was just using the somber moral quandary about arms manufacturers and their culpability in how their weapons are used as a cheap tool for an easy story.  If he had been at all serious he wouldn’t have needed to show those pictures.  But because the movie is so empty-headed about the problem Jeunet felt like he needed the photos to prove how serious he takes it, despite the rest of the picture (including a bit where a massive explosion destroys one of the factories, yet no one appears to have been injured or killed; the workers just emerge from the wreckage with comically surprised expressions without a scrape).

Jeunet’s movies tend to be more style than substance, but most of them, despite ultimately being failures, are worth watching to see a unique visual style, like the frustrating Delicatessen or the uneven The City of Lost Children.  His biggest artistic success was Amélie and the difference between that movie and the other two was Jeunet expunged most of the thematic and cinematographic darkness from Amélie.  His style is more suited to fancy and whimsy rather than taking on complex ethical issues (or, rather, cynically using complex ethical issues as a backdrop for a stylized revenge picture).  Micmacs fails because the whimsy works against the message.  It feels more like a Quentin Tarantino picture – all style, no substance, but oodles of shameless exploitation.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Micmacs (Review)

  1. satsumaart

    Hmmmmm. I’m glad to read what you thought about this one. I admit I do love it primarily for its style, right down to the soundtrack (which I understand is much borrowed from The Big Sleep). I think I’m more tolerant than you are of quirky style-over-substance pieces, particularly when the style amuses me. (I remember when we watched Kung Fu Hustle together… another movie that delights me and perplexed you.) To me it’s like watching a really cool Saturday-morning cartoon. The good guys are funny and brave, and the bad guys are satisfyingly mockable. I know the good guys are going to bring the villains down; I just want to see how they’re going to do it. I don’t expect deep commentary, just a good bit of fun.

    To be honest, I don’t remember much about Dr Strangelove, even though I’ve now seen it twice (including once with you). For whatever reason, that film just does not resonate with me. Maybe I am a sucker for flashy style… I disliked and don’t remember much about Kill Bill, but certain images from it have stuck in my head, whereas from Strangelove I get nothing.

    Sigh. Have you seen The Triplets of Belleville? That’s another weird French picture I adore.

    • I’m not advocating deep commentary on everything, just those movies that use serious issues like this one. I could never buy that the bad guys were really bad guys, just part of a really bad system. So what good is bringing them down going to do? There are many more lining up to take their place.

      And there is nothing wrong with flashy style, but that can’t be all there is. It’s like people who say I have to see some action movie because the special effects are great. Wonderful, but I don’t see movies for special effects. Sure they look great, but if I don’t care about the people or the story, I can’t get into the effects. That’s how I felt about the style of this movie.

      I did see The Triplets of Belleville and, like Kung Fu Hustle, that was another movie that, as you diplomatically put it, perplexed me.

      • satsumaart

        I feel that Micmacs, Triplets, and Hustle have a lot in common: characters that are more cartoony than individual and human, bizarre/quirky/unrealistic events and situations, and plots that are just kind of silly when you look at their bare bones. It’s interesting that you say “if I don’t care about the people or the story, I can’t get into the effects,” because I feel the same way, and yet we have such different responses to these three films. I’m trying to articulate just what it is that delights me so about them… it has a lot to do with their weirdness, really. I certainly wouldn’t say that any of them have well-rounded characters or nuanced plots, but I don’t mind. I liked that a factory exploded and no one got hurt; I rolled my eyes, but I enjoyed it. It can’t happen in the real world; why shouldn’t it happen in this world which is so obviously not the real world? I’m into animal rights, but I laugh every time an anvil falls on Wile E Coyote’s head. These movies are the same way for me.

        It’s odd, because I often get very frustrated at stories that I feel are illogical and self-serving, yet with these three I’m willing to accept sheer nonsense because the nonsense seems to me to have an internal logic that’s idiosyncratic to their creators. They come from a particular, peculiar perspective, and I respect that and enjoy getting into it. For me, this saves them from being exploitative and actually makes them good. It’s not exactly that I’m saying “what you don’t like about them, I consider their strengths,” but I do think our divergent expectations have a lot to do with our reactions.

      • Taste is one of those weird things that often can’t be explained. There are some movies I love that I know are awful, like “Clue.” It’s a truly terrible movie, but it suckers me in every time.

        As far as “Micmacs” goes I think you put your finger on it for me. When you mentioned the explosion at the factory you said it was unrealistic which was fine in a world that is so obviously unrealistic. I agree in theory, but why use such a real and emotional problem in a world that is so unrealistic? That gets at the heart of my problem with the movie. I was reminded of the scene in the beginning when Dany’s mother is called with the news that her husband died. I was really turned off by how Juenet played the scene for laughs. Her reaction was too silly for a moment that should have had some realism or emotion to it. If Juenet wanted to keep his unrealistic quirky world he could have left that out. From that moment on in the movie I was on my guard.

  2. satsumaart

    Oh, Clue is fabulous. It makes me laugh just thinking about it. We watched it on New Year’s Eve and it was a great way to ring in 2010.

    I didn’t like that phone call scene either. It was so callous. But it seems we both took it as an important signal that normal reactions were going to be suspended for the next hour or so. That turned you off, but not me. I guess that’s where the taste thing comes in. 😉 (But actually I think I figured that out with the very first scene. Whenever there’s a death in the first scene, the way the creator treats it really sets the tone for everything. A guy gets blown up, and we get a donkey hee-hawing around in circles? This isn’t going to be a serious human drama.)

    Happy weekend!

  3. This thing was such a mess I had to turn it off after forty minutes. This director is another one like Gondry whose stuff is so overripe it comes across as banal now. Tis ashame, I’ll still always like The City of Lost Children. Amelie is where he started going down hill, though even that had a few inspired moments.

    • I liked “Amelie” a lot, but I have to admit the more I see it the more I recognize some forced whimsy. “Micmacs” was such a complete utter failure that it makes the weaknesses of “Amelie” stand out much more sharply. You did well to turn this off because it would just get worse, much worse.

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