Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs is a delightful little fun house of a movie, and a welcome return to form for the playful French filmmaker, who followed up the internationally beloved Amelie with the well-made but underwhelming (and somewhat downbeat) A Very Long Engagement five years back. It’s an utterly charming picture that takes a dark tale and puts a whiz-bang spin on it.The opening scenes are played almost entirely wordless—the scene is set with images and sounds (a gasp, a cry, an explosion), but no dialogue. We begin in 1979, as the father of young Bazil is killed in the Western Sahara by a land mine. The heartbroken boy is shipped off to private school, and trouble spirals from there. Flash forward to thirty or so years later, where the adult Bazil (played by French comic superstar Dany Boon) is nearly killed by a stray bullet in a freakish accident outside of the video store where he works. We get a sense of the movie’s sense of humor with the operating room scene that follows; the doctor explains to his colleagues that removing the bullet from Bazil’s brain could leave him a vegetable, but if it stays in, he could die at any moment, so he’s not sure what call to make. “Anybody have a coin?” he asks. “Heads!” comes the reply. “Okay, leave it in,” the doctor shrugs.
When Bazil gets out of the hospital, though, he finds that he’s been evicted from his apartment and replaced at his old job. Newly homeless, he tries his hand at first stealing and then, finding he hasn’t the stomach for it, begging and performing. He eventually falls in with a group of wayward artists, right around the same time that he discovers the headquarters (directly across the street from each other) of the weapons makers that manufactured the bomb that killed his father, and the bullet that’s in his brain. Bazil formulates a plan to take them both down.
Micmacs is, to date, Jeunet’s most explicit valentine to the cinema—not just the old Warner Brothers pictures (which it quotes, in the opening and title sequence) or modern action movies (which it lovingly satirizes), but the films of Chaplin, Keaton, and the great silent clowns. In the first act, as we watch clever Bazil try to make his way in the big bad city, battling indifference and rotten luck, we can’t help but think of Chaplin’s Little Fellow—and indeed, Jeunet has Bazil play these scenes almost entirely in pantomime. Later scenes—the bit with a large crane magnet, the elegantly constructed airport sequence, or the theft of the suitcases—unwind with the Swiss-watch precision of a Keaton sequence (and it’s surely no coincidence that we have a supporting character named “Buster”). The piano-heavy score even sounds, in spots, like silent movie accompaniment. But the entire film has a go-for-broke sense of humor; it’s full of marvelous sight gags, like the business with the dog and the storm drain, or the moment of Bazil’s big discovery, in which the score swells and camera booms up to reveal an orchestra playing on the steps behind him (they then disappear with a slap to his forehead).
The picture is full of clever visual and narrative flourishes—touches of animation, flights of fancy, endlessly inventive photography, frames within the frame (much credit due to cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata). Some of the throwaway bits don’t quite land (the soccer fantasy scene is odd and out of place), and the goofy band of misfits threaten, particularly in their early scenes, to make the film a little too precious (I, for one, didn’t find the female contortionist to be nearly as charming as Jeunet did). It should also be noted that, for a few brief moments near the end, that the picture takes a serious turn a little to sharply, threatening to throw the whole film off its delicate balance.
It bounces back with grace, however; the third act, in which Bazil ingeniously pits the villains against each other, is wonderfully convoluted, and a giggly counterculture vibe sneaks into the proceedings (as the ragtag crew takes down the “warmongers”). Jeunet is up to something tricky here—he savvily navigates whimsical comedy with gunplay and explosions, and I can’t think of a single other filmmaker who’s done that (or, frankly, one crazy enough to try it). The results are masterful. Micmacs is a real treat.