A slapstick farce about one man’s revenge on a pair of rival arms dealers, Micmacs succeeds as comedy but attempts to ignore its own political content.
This may be a damning admission for any critic to make, let alone the editor of a film section, but I don’t really know how I feel about Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest film, Micmacs. I’ve been thinking about it for the past month, after two viewings with wildly different audiences – one a deathly silent, tiny press crowd, the other a giddy festival crowd, easily provoked into prolonged laughter – and perhaps because of this, I can’t quite settle on one judgment. Essentially a slapstick farce about one man’s revenge on a pair of rival arms dealers, Micmacs is a film I want to love, because it’s basically a fun movie that succeeds as a comedy, if you’re in the right mood; but the underlying subject matter is so serious, and Jeunet takes it on in such a confusingly oblique way, that I haven’t been able to rid myself of a queasy feeling about the whole thing.
Our main character is Bazil (Dany Boon), a man in his thirties who was a child when his father was killed by a landmine in Algeria – evidently he was on a mine-removal squad after the war. Bazil has grown up to become a clerk at a DVD shop with a passion for Bogart films – he’s shown mouthing all the words to a dubbed scene from the Big Sleep, which he’s watching on a late-night shift. (Maybe Jeunet was trying to win critics over early on with this bit — it’s an open secret that most film critics harbor nostalgic daydreams about working late nights at a DVD store.) Momentarily, a gunfight breaks out in the street, and Bazil is hit by stray gunfire, after which he ends up with a bullet permanently stuck in his brain. Within about five minutes, that bullet in his head and the clothes on his back are his only possessions.
Soon afterwards he falls in with a group of trashpickers, and here Jeunet’s trademark whimsicality cranks into high gear. They live in a secret hideout fashioned from trash (because what would an intrigue be without a secret hideout?) and each of them is marked by a single quirky trait – one woman is a contortionist, another woman can do complex calculations in her head, Dominique Pinon is obsessed with getting into the Guinness Book of World Records, an endearing old fellow makes kinetic sculpture from otherwise unusable trash, and so forth. The stage now set, Bazil accidentally happens upon the headquarters of the two arms manufacturers that have ruined his life, the one that made the landmine and the one that made the bullet, and it happens that their factories directly face one another. From here on out, the story is a classic house-against-house farce: with the aid of his quirky crew, Bazil pits the two CEOs against one another, goading them into a (sometimes literally) explosive feud.
And I will admit that I loved the farce. The setup, particularly the part where the trashpickers are introduced, felt like so much forced whimsy verging on annoying, as if Jeunet were ordering us to be charmed and to laugh. But once the CEOs are introduced – and their kind of evil is deliciously portrayed, they’re the kind of people who won’t do anything for money, precisely, but who will certainly cause anything to be done – once the intrigue with them gets moving, the film is enormous fun. According to Jeunet, the full original title, Micmacs à tire Larigot, is antique slang for ‘shenanigans,’ and that’s just how the plot works: one outrageous shenanigan after another, each one more outrageous than the last, in which the CEOs’ pride, greed, and finally, their fear, is ultimately used to bring about their ruin.
But as much as I enjoyed that aspect of it, that was also where my misgivings began. Jeunet is determined that we have fun in Micmacs, but he was unable to ignore the fact that the manufacture and sale of arms is a morally ambiguous activity in the real world. No free society, including France, can survive long unless its government is well-armed; but arms dealers don’t typically limit themselves to selling to the governments of free societies. Like the dealers of any goods, they typically sell to whomever they’re allowed to sell to. And although sometimes they do find ways to sell to people they’re not allowed to sell to, it’s worth pointing out that in this story at least, the injuries to Bazil’s life and dignity were the incidental result of perfectly legal deals.
Jeunet gestures at this reality of our world several times; from time to time he acknowledges that companies such as these do a significant amount of harm in the world, that ‘defense’ is often a patriotic screen for selling arms to the highest bidder, whoever that may be. There is a moment when one of the CEOs is boasting about the destructive power of their new landmines, another moment when one of the trashpickers offhandedly refers to the CEOs as marchands de mort – dealers of death – and the scene near the end, the most dramatically discordant of all, when the CEOs are faced with photos of children who have had limbs blown off by their weaponry. (Even the giddy crowd winced audibly at that moment.) But then having made an impact, having sobered the audience up, Jeunet retreats directly into farce without even really letting the message sink in.
When I think about that scene, the one with the photos that caused a whole theater to gasp, I realize it was a direct homage to the final scene of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and I find that very revealing. It’s as if Jeunet couldn’t decide what he wanted to say about the subject, or perhaps was afraid of cheapening the artistic value of his film with mere sermonizing, and so even at the most potentially political moment in the film, he immediately backs off from those implications, and as he does elsewhere, buries the moment in pure stylization, pure cinema. Jeunet often says that he has no interest in naturalism, that documentary style is for documentarians, that he doesn’t see the point in duplicating the look and feel of the reality we know, or even to tell a naturalistic story, when all he wants to do is present a fairy tale. He often follows that remark with another, to the effect that he most admires those directors whose work can be identified from about ten seconds of footage, most often citing Federico Fellini and Sergio Leone. He doesn’t necessarily mean to invite a comparison between those masters and himself when he says this – it strikes me as an effort on his part to lay out his obvious affinities for reporters who don’t know any film history at all – but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Jeunet very definitely belongs in a category with those great directors. All his films are intensely, distinctively stylized, from Délicatessen to Amélie, and up through his previous offering, A Very Long Engagement, this style always served the story – omnipresent, but never dominant, never driving the story, or being used in place of story.
Of course, Fellini and Leone had many missteps too, inevitable in a long career, and unfortunately I feel that Micmacs is Jeunet’s first major misstep as an artist (Alien: Resurrection was just a flat-out failure), the first film where he relies upon his style to drive everything else. Or to be more accurate, I feel that this is the first film where Jeunet uses his style as a kind of sleight-of-hand, to draw attention away from the evidence that he didn’t really want to face his subject matter head-on, or didn’t want to make audiences face it, his first film where his approach to the material is deeply incoherent.
And I’m pretty sure that’s why I still can’t decide how I feel about Micmacs. It was entertaining, and if you see it you won’t feel cheated of your money and time, and it is beautiful and dark and whimsical in all the ways you expect of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. But it’s frustrating as well, in its habit of undercutting every serious gesture, every potentially political statement, with yet another bit of meaningless whimsy. Jeunet has cited Chaplin’s Great Dictator as an inspiration for this film, and given that he has quoted at least a half-dozen other great films in Micmacs, I wonder why he didn’t just go ahead and follow Chaplin’s lead all the way, and after he makes clear where he stands on the issues he has been making light of for two hours, allow the film to end without so much smirking irony. After both screenings, walking home alone, I was annoyed by the ending. I kept thinking of Eisenhower’s famous words: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.” Words with the potential to affect us as those do are spoken near the end of Micmacs, but unlike Chaplin he didn’t trust their power enough to leave us with such thoughts, and the brief moment of seriousness they provoke is followed by a madcap, upbeat coda, it would seem designed precisely to make us forget this message and leave with a mindless grin. It may be that Jeunet, as a true descendent of Leone and Fellini, feels that good art is necessarily apolitical. If that’s the case, that’s one inheritance he’d probably be better off without.