The word ‘visionary’ is given out very easily nowadays. Seemingly every director with a penchant for the image (or simply ambitious, CGI-laden projects) is bestowed with that label. However, there are few that embody the term with both its flaws and genius, whose pursuit of uniquely visual styles often take precedence over slick narratives or thematic subtlety. Jean Pierre Jeunet is one of these auteurs of the eye, and his latest film, Micmacs (Micmacs à tire-larigot), is a dazzling spectacle of imagination and design.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Micmacs for those familiar with Jeunet’s work (Amelie, Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children) is its plot. As in, it has one. Whereas his previous films have used fairytale settings and whimsical storytelling to facilitate flights of fancy, Micmacs is, on one level, narrative heavy, featuring distinct tones of broad satire, railing against arms companies and those that profit from war and terror.
Video shop employee Bazil (Dany Boon) still nurses a mourning for his deceased father, whose death was caused by a Moroccan landmine, when one night he falls victim to a hit-and-run shooting outside his store. While the injuries sustained in the accident lose him his job and flat, it gives him a tidy purpose, to declare personal war on the two companies that manufactured the devices that most affected his life, the mine that destroyed his family, and the bullet that is still lodged in his brain.
With that set-up, Jeunet indulges his obsession with odd characters’ subterranean lifestyles by having Bazil adopted by a surrogate family of freaks and weirdos, who scavenge junk from the city and carve out an existence completely separate from mainstream society. Headed by a kindly Mother Goose-like figure, Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau), this band of outsiders includes ex-con (and guillotine survivor) Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle), shy brainbox Calculator (Marie-Julie Baup), perilous world record attempt extraordinaire Buster (Dominque Pinon), meek tinkerer Tiny Pete (Michel Cremades), overly-loquacious ethnographer Remington (Omar Sy) and quirky contortionist Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier).
These are strong characters, full of pep and promise, and Jeunet’s camera – with its bold composition, off-kilter framing and eye-popping mise-en-scene – both feeds and feeds off the energy that the actors bring to the roles. Boon, a supremely successful actor and filmmaker in France, whose 2008 film Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis is the most successful French movie ever made, is great as the protagonist, managing to carry the heart and drive of the film well while keeping things suitably light. Indeed, his physical comedy presence is often outstanding, especially in scenes that recall classic silent-period routines and characters, such as Chaplin’s Tramp.
While it is certainly the director’s most narrative-driven work, especially once the gang get behind Bazil’s madcap ploy to teach the arms barons a lesson, Micmacs is still very much a design and imagination led production. Each shot is brimming with ideas and wonder, from the miniature contraptions made by Tiny Pete to the intricate, convoluted schemes that utilise each member of the troupe to full effect.
This inspiration spills out of the cinema screen, creating an experience that is enjoyable and meticulously detailed. Sight gags are packed in with a subtle sort of cheekiness. One example that unobservant audience members may miss concerns an ongoing joke, where billboards for the film itself will appear in the background of certain exterior scenes, depicting a still image of that particular vista.
However, even though it is possible to enjoy Micmacs as trifle, it wears its polemical zeal with pride, confronting the viewer with its micro treatise on the military-industrial complex, which, to be frank, amounts to little more than ‘Armies don’t kill people, arms manufacturers do’. Thankfully, Jeunet is too canny an entertainer to over-emphasise his soap-box to the detriment of his art.
If cinema is first and foremost a spectacle of the eye, isn’t it strange that there are so few filmmakers that dazzle with visual expressionism? Sure, effects and trickery are used with great style and confidence in plenty of flicks, from the ground-up other-world design of Avatar to the grim poetics of A Prophet, but there’s a vivid, careening sense of genius to Micmacs that is startlingly unique and wholly absorbing.