So what exactly does Micmacs even mean? A cursory search online brings me a few definitions: 1) a Native American Algonquian group living in Canada and upper New England, 2) the Algonquian language of the Micmac. That doesn’t exactly clear things up, especially considering that Mimacs is a French movie by the famed filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet. An interview with the director has him explaining that the title is French slang for a mixture. That seems appropriate since the film is a mélange of the director’s other works, high on inventiveness and visual whimsy. Except the one thing Jeunet strangely left out this time was a reason to care amidst the high-powered shenanigans.
Bazil (Danny Boon) is a bit down on his luck. A landmine killed his father when Bazil was a child. He drifted through life, got a job at a video store, and then got a bullet in his brain thanks to a drive-by shootout. The doctors decided to leave the stray bullet inside or else Bazil will become catatonic. Bazil eventually is adopted by a batch of homeless misfits living in a junkyard. They accept Bazil and encourage him to seek vengeance against the warring arms dealers responsible for the land mind and stray bullet. Bazil and his colorful new family plot to antagonize the arms company CEOs. They come up with crazy schemes to then frame on the rival CEOs to escalate tensions. Bazil and crew intend to expose these men and their corporate crimes to the world.
Micmacs succeeds where Rian Johnson’s Brother’s Bloom dangerously came close, and by that I mean that Micmacs overdoses on whimsy and I pronounced it clinically dead about an hour in. It’s too much; it’s just too much. Jeunet has always created movies that existed in rich, idiosyncratic worlds but those worlds always felt lush and lively and bursting with wonder. What saves a movie from whimsy is an emotional connection to the proceedings. 2001’s Amelie is a perfect example of cinematic “magic realism” but it’s also a moving and emotionally rewarding love story that transcends the plucky heroine. 2004’s A Very Long Engagement was a rapturous, old-fashioned love story with flights of fancy. Now, after a long six-year absence, Jeunet seems to have lost touch with the heart. There is no real emotional entry point for Micmacs. The protagonist is pretty much a blank. Yeah, you want him to get justice and you pull for the underdogs, but at no point did I care whatsoever for any character. Most of the junkyard characters are just ideas, walking-talking heist components (the human cannonball, the girl whose brain is good at math, the toy maker). Several characters barely exist except for their specific roles in Bazil’s schemes. There’s a romantic angle with the female contortionist (Julie Ferrier) and Bazil, but that comes off as less a function of the narrative and more of a desperate “Well, who else is gonna get together?” necessity. Jeunet has put together a movie that is all surface and no polish. Sure, the movie is intermittently entertaining and has plenty of imagination, but Micmacs is without a doubt the least involving and least accomplished film from a man responsible for a fantastic output.
The tone of the film seems to hew to something like a silent movie, which might explain why all the older members in my audience were constantly giggling while I just occasionally snickered under my breath. The comedy never rises above the chuckle level. There’s plenty of controlled wackiness, nothing gets too out of hand or edgy despite the fact that the plot revolves around getting vengeance on arms dealers. I was expecting something a little darker than the cutesy oddballs that I got. The best and darkest moment in the film is when we see that one of the arms dealers collects body parts of dead celebrities (Marilyn Monroe’s molar, Mussolini’s eyeball). It’s an interesting quirk that actually reveals something about the dark heart of the antagonist. There should be more moments like this. The bullet in Bazil’s brain is barely referenced. I have no issues with whimsy when it doesn’t overwhelm the narrative, and that’s the problem with Micmacs. The story is merely the vehicle for the inventive hijinks. The story is suffocated by whimsy and visual energy, therefore there’s no room for character development. All that inventiveness takes center stage. If playfulness is all you seek in a movie, then Micmacs will likely satisfy. Jeunet still makes movies that nobody else does, but he’s fallen fall short of his own lofty standards.
The movie moves along so quickly that it seems like every character just naturally intuits what must be done next, like they all have the screenplay in hand just off camera. Bazil is so quickly adopted by the junkyard gang. He so quickly discovers who is responsible for his life’s troubles. The schemes are so quickly thrown together. They aren’t even that complicated, mostly distracting and framing. The movie just feels like a spinning plate that has to keep moving or else everything will just break. I suppose Jeunet and his longtime co-writing collaborator Guillaume Laurant are trying to keep things busy so people won’t notice that they don’t genuinely care what happens.
This being a Jeunet film, of course it’s spectacular from a technical standpoint. Every frame of a Jeunet film can be used as a mural. His compositions delight the eye and the colorful cinematography by Tetsuo Negata (Splice) makes Paris seem like a dream city. The production design looks like it was taken directly from the Steampunk Architectural Digest magazine. You’ll never have to worry about the visual aesthetics or ingenuity of a Jeunet film. But there are plenty of artists that can master technical craft (you can find them in the world of commercials) but it takes something much more to marry technical precision in the service story and character. Micmacs is a strange film not because of plot, character, tone, or energy, but because Jeunet spent six years in absence and returned with a film that’s got plenty of style but no heart inside all that artifice.
Nate’s Grade: B-