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WARNING: SPOILERS AFFECTEE
If you felt Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie” (or, in the original French, “Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain”) was too pleased with its own quirkiness, then Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Micmacs” (or, in the original French, “Micmacs à tire-larigot”) is probably not the film for you.
Jeunet is a master visual storyteller. No argument there. In the first two minutes we see a mine-sweeper in the Sahara get blown up, his wife and son receiving the bad news, the wife catatonic at the funeral, the son taken away to Catholic school, the son punished at Catholic school, the son escaping from Catholic school—all with hardly a word spoken.
Then it’s 30 years later. The son, Bazil, is now Dany Boon, late of “Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis” (2008), the most popular film in French history. He’s working late at Matador Video, watching “The Big Sleep” dubbed in French, and repeating the dialogue along with Bogart and Bacall, or Bogart and Bacall’s French dubbers (who, by the way, are fantastique), when he hears gunfire, real gunfire, outside. He goes to the door and sees men in a car chasing a man on a motorcycle—or vice versa. There’s a crash, a gun goes off accidentally, and the bullet goes, pow!, straight into Bazil’s forehead. Down he goes. Out come the opening credits.
Is he dead? Nope. But the bullet is so close to his brain it’s a coin toss whether it’s riskier to operate (and possibly turn him into a vegetable), or leave the bullet where it is (where a sneeze or knock on the head might kill him). And that’s what the surgeon does. He flips a coin and leaves the bullet in.
Thus Bazil is given a new, precarious lease on life, but life does not exactly open its arms to welcome him back. His apartment has already been rented out from under him, his effects have been stolen, and his job at the video store has been given to another. In Jeunet’s world, this no reason to get all gloomy. Au contraire! Instead we get a series of short, Chaplinesque scenes from our new little tramp. Bazil stands behind a subway pillar and mouths along as a girl on the other side of the pillar sings for the coins of passing commuters. He performs a robot dance for the tourists at some brasserie de musee. He cleans his feet via street-cleaner. He eyes a breadline, but, from pride, refuses to get in it, implying to the pretty volunteer that he’s simply waiting for a taxi. Which, of course, is when the taxi arrives, requiring further subterfuge. No bitterness is associated with any of these circumstances. Even as he strains to sleep beneath a cardboard box by the Seine, he merely smiles and waves when a boat, filled with lights and gaiety (and rich bastards), floats by.
But he’s getting a rep, and one day, a man named Placard (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who has spent three-quarters of his life behind bars, brings him to a junkyard, a rather magical junkyard, where, under a “tire-larigot” sign, he’s led through amazingly clean tunnels and introduced to a group of misfits, each with their own talent. La Môme Caoutchouc (Julie Ferrier) is a contortionist who can fit her body into the bottoms of refrigerators, while Calculette (Marie-Julie Baup, who has an Amelie thing going) can calculate weight, height, distance, on sight. Petit Pierre (Michel Crémadès) is a genial puppet/robot-maker who is shockingly strong, while Fracasse (Dominique Pinon of “Delicatessen”) is a human cannonball who claims, vehemently, to have once held the Guiness record for human cannonball flight. Mothered over by Tambouille (Yolande Moreau of “Seraphine”), they’re a kind of French version of the X-Men.
They spend their lives taking the useless and making it useful, and, in a way, that’s what they do with Bazil. More than they know. He’s off on his first junk run, when he stumbles upon the headquarters of the weapons merchants that manufactured the mine that killed his father, run by François Marconi (Nicolas Marié), right across the street from the headquarters of the weapons merchants that manufactured the bullet that nearly ended his life, run by Nicolas Thibault de Fenouillet (Andre Dussollier).
Both men are pieces of work. Marconi (who could’ve been played by Daniel Auteuil) imagines himself a poet while perpetually quizzing his son on the trivia of historical munitions. Fenouillet (who suggests a French James Caan) collects bits of the famous dead under glass: the heart of Louis XVI, the molar of Marilyn Monroe, the vertebrae of Tino Rossi. In a way these bits suggest what’s left of humanity after an explosion. They also suggest a way of life opposite of our heroes. Fenouillet is taking the useful and keeping it useless.
Bazil’s revelation leads to an immediate frontal assault on both headquarters that goes nowhere. But soon he and his French X-Men concoct over-elaborate, Rube Goldberg-esque schemes to bring down the bad guys.
Example. They distract drug dealers in order to fill a mailbox full of water, allowing the drug-filled envelope inside to float within finger reach; then, at the airport, they plant said envelope into the pocket of a deposed African dictator, who is doing business with Fenouillet (illegal arms for Mussolini’s eye, I believe); then, with Fracasse luring drug-sniffing dogs forward with meat, La Môme Caoutchouc, tucked inside a suitcase, cuts the dog’s leash from his unobservant, Robert De Niro-imitating police master, and the dog bolts for the meat—until he smells the drugs in the dictator’s pocket and starts barking. The bad guys are led away. Could this have been accomplished more easily? Yes, but it wouldn’t have been as much fun.
The goal is to keep pricking both men to see if they bleed, and, of course, being men of power and prestige, they react badly to the pricking and suspect each other. The movie might have made more sense if our heroes had merely pushed each industrialist into the other and then gotten out of the way, but it’s our heroes who keep doing the pricking. The contortionist enters Fenouillet’s place via special-delivery box and vacuums up all his prized celebrity parts—leaving behind one hand with middle finger extended. A cache of Marconi’s arms are stolen and dumped into the Seine via coffee pot of bees and the services of the human cannonball (or Bazil). Fenouillet’s place is blown up. By accident? On the news, we’re told, “There were no fatalities.” Of course not. Otherwise our protagonists would be as bad as our antagonists.
The final scheme involves kidnapping both weapons merchants and transporting them to an Arab desert, where Fenouillet, with one of his explosives clenched in his mouth, is put on the shoulders of Marconi, standing on one of his own land mines, and the two men totter, and plead shamelessly, before a silent tribunal of Arab women in burkhas who hold photos of their own mutilated or murdered children before them. The men admit their crimes, offer, in a sense, arms for hostages (“I’m all for terrorism!” Marconi shouts), but it’s our heroes under the burkhas, and the desert is a building site in France. And it’s all being recorded.
How old am I? After that moment I thought: “Oh, they can get this footage to some news outlet.” Instead they upload it on YouTube under the title “Arms dealers fooled,” and it becomes a hit. We see people around the world watching it...and then presumably going back to their 9-to-5. Or watching some other YouTube clip? “California Gurls”? “Nekkid Mom”? “Crazy Snake Attack!”? The arms dealers get more than humiliated—Marconi gets 15 years for illegal arms sales—but YouTube still feels like a small ending to such an elaborate scheme.
Is the set-up too easy? Band of misfits vs. weapons merchants—with the latter vacuous and bitter and the former a little too pleased with its own quirks. Besides, take down Marconi and another CEO rises in his place. Take down his company and another rises in its place. The problem is less the supply than the demand. And there will always be demand, world without end.
At the same time...why not? Sure, weapons merchants are easy targets, but so are terrorists, which is why Hollywood keeps sending one lone man to fight them. Again and again and again. When was the last time Hollywood made villains of weapons merchants? Why, they’re just capitalists. Like the rest of us.
That may be my favorite thing about “Micmacs.” By its French example, it lays bare the claim that Hollywood’s product is anything close to liberal. Merci, M. Jeunet.
July 15, 2010
© 2010 Erik Lundegaard