Thursday, July 22, 2010

Micmacs: Payback is a treat

Micmacs (2010) • View trailer for Micmacs
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, and quite stupidly, for brief violence and sexuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.22.10
Buy DVD: Micmacs • Buy Blu-Ray: Micmacs [Blu-ray]

Jean-Pierre Jeunet doesn't make mere movies; he uncorks richly imaginative and gleefully demented works of art.

In this country, he's best known for 2001's odd romantic fable, Amelie, which also brought actress Audrey Tautou to the world's attention. Some of us had already taken note of Jeunet years earlier, however, as a result of 1995's The City of Lost Children: a madcap dark fantasy that was anything but a simple kids' flick, instead deserving recognition as a memorably delirious Grimm's fairy tale.
The key element of the plan concocted by Bazil (Dany Boon, left) involves
some divide-and-conquer stratagems; to that end, he has Remington (Omar Sy)
impersonate the trusted associated of a venal arms manufacturer during a key
phone call, while an attentive Calculator (Marie-Julie Baup) watches and waits
to emply her own unique talents.

Jeunet's fever-dream creativity makes him the French equivalent of Terry Gilliam; both have been responsible for some of the most visually engaging  if also eccentric  films made during the past few decades. Both also take their time; Micmacs is Jeunet's first film since 2004's less stylized and much more melodramatic A Very Long Engagement.

Micmacs also is a giddy return to the form for which Jeunet has become best known: adult fables populated by misfits who are no less endearing for their shortcomings. Indeed, such failings define them.

The world in Jeunet's films is recognizably our own, but a little bit more so. The freshly scrubbed and oh-so-charming Paris of Amelie owed more to Gene Kelly's vision of that fabled city, in An American in Paris, than to the humdrum details of real life. Jeunet and longtime writing partner Guillaume Laurant have returned to that metropolis for this new story, which once again takes place in a dichotomous Paris that is both more attractive  and more harsh  than we're apt to encounter ourselves.

The juxtaposed settings are fascinating all by themselves: the skylight at Galeries Lafayette intercut with a display of Lycra sports clothes; the Musee d'Orsay seen adjacent to a contemporary coffee shop; the romance of the Crimee bridge along the Canal de l'Ourcq contrasted with towering Art Deco office buildings.

The tale begins with a brief prologue, as young Bazil's father is killed while attempting to disarm a mine in the Moroccan desert. The boy suffers an unpleasant childhood  quite cleverly referenced with but a single scene that speaks volumes  before maturing into a lonely man (Dany Boon) at loose ends, who draws his pleasure from old American film noir classics.

Then, additional tragedy: Thanks to a crazed accident that leaves a bullet lodged perilously in his brain, Bazil becomes jobless and homeless, but somehow not hopeless. Gentle dreamers, Jeunet strongly suggests  in this film and his others  have a knack for survival, if only on their own quirky terms.

Indeed, Bazil's attempts to get along are inventive, hilarious and touching. He tries to wash his feet with the spray thrown from a passing street-sweeper; lacking any musical talent himself, he stands on the opposite side of a thick pillar and lip-synchs a performance by an unknowing woman behind him. But Bazil's too ethical to profit from such duplicity; despite his own need, he can't walk away without dumping his tips into her waiting cap.

This portion of the film scales the heights of classic silent comedy, particularly when the still-proud Bazil refuses an offer to join a charity food line; his attempt to feign waiting for a cab is as rich with physical humor  and pathos  as the best moments from Charlie Chaplin or France's own Jacques Tati.

Things take a turn for the better when Bazil is "adopted" by a gaggle of junkyard refugees who've built their own Ali Baba's cave deep within the piles of trash. This oddly comfortable den, filled with demented little gadgets, is as unlikely as its inhabitants, all of whom sport descriptive nicknames  as with Snow White's Seven Dwarfs  that reflect their unusual talents: Remington (Omar Sy), Calculator (Marie-Julie Baup), Buster (Dominique Pinon, a familiar fixture in Jeunet's films), Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle), Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier), Tiny Pete (Michel Cremandes) and Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau).

Remington imitates voices and accents, and records everything on an ancient typewriter. Calculator instinctively senses proportions, weights, budgets and all other measures; Buster, something of a failed acrobat, is all "busted up." Slammer recently got out of prison, and Mama Chow makes all the food.

Tiny Pete builds wild automated sculptures out of salvaged parts  think back to William Sanderson's J.F. Sebastian, in Blade Runner  and Elastic Girl ... well, I'll not spoil the eye-opening delights of her particular talent.

These people have become a family of sorts, and they warmly embrace Bazil. One imagines this oddly guileless group scouring the city quite happily, for years to come  something like Fagin, the Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist  but then Bazil makes a fateful discovery. He recognizes the logos on two huge corporate buildings that face each other, on opposite sides of a street: One company was responsible for the mine that killed his father, and the other manufactured the bullet that could end his life at any moment.

(This epiphany is accompanied by a suitably ominous fanfare in Raphael Beau's soundtrack ... and, since this is a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film, we get to see the entire orchestra, assembled on the steps behind Bazil, as the final note is struck.)

Without even knowing what he's doing, Bazil decides on revenge. Can't imagine how, when or where ... but he's determined to get even with the CEOs of these two companies: Nicolas Thibault de Fenouillet (Andre Dussollier) and Francois Marconi (Nicolas Marie). Both these men are rapaciously condescending and venal; both have hobbies that are, ah, somewhat unusual ... and perfectly suited to their ruthless amorality.

Naturally, Bazil's new friends insist on helping. What follows could best be described as a demented spin on The Sting, but with a subtly blossoming political context.

At some point along the way, you'll suddenly realize that Jeunet's offbeat fantasy has morphed into a mordant anti-war parable.

Without losing any of its childlike charm and tenderhearted character interactions. And that's quite a trick.

Jeunet clearly lives and breathes cinema, and understands how to exploit the medium like very few directors; he always understands the necessity of putting the 'motion' in his motion pictures. None of his scenes could be dismissed as filmed radio; we're always fascinated by what production designer Aline Bonetto has thrown into a scene, or how costume designer Madeline Fontaine has dressed these characters for the next phase of their bizarre scheme.

Cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata deserves equal praise, as does Belgian Steadicam operator Jan Rubens, whose smooth work helps prevent the whiplash we'd otherwise experience from editor Herve Schneid's often rapid cuts.

None of this opulent, eye-popping technique would mean a thing, of course, if we didn't care for the characters at the heart of this drama.

Boon holds the film together, as the poignantly sensitive Bazil: an oddly dignified underdog whose renewed sense of purpose also brings a clarity of vision to his seven new friends. Bazil rarely smiles; Boon's signature look resembles hangdog sorrow or resignation. But we never quite slide into feeling sorry for this guy, because Boon's portrayal never edges into helplessness. It's a deft and fascinating performance, held together by subtle facial tics and wonderful bits of physical business.

My sole complaint is the desire to know more about the other seven characters: how they got that way, how they gravitated toward their current family unity. Passing reference is made to Mama Chow's two missing daughters, and to Buster's entry in the Guinness record book for his feats as a human cannonball, but the others remain ciphers.

The mark of a truly engaging film is our desire that it not come to an end, and I welcome a director's DVD cut that allows Jeunet to expand upon these 105 minutes, to sidebar into the histories of these seven misfits.

Meanwhile, I can't wait to watch the Micmacs we've already been blessed with, again and again. And again.

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