MOVIES | "Micmacs": Fun for casual filmgoers, but those who live for Jeunet will be disappointed

The other night, I caught a screening at the Lagoon of the newly released Iranian film, No One Knows About Persian Cats, with my friend Nick Bell. As per our usual get-together routine, we listed off and discussed all the films we'd seen since we last met. We did all this before the screening started, letting each other know what we thought about each film, why we liked or disliked them, and then the film started.

I told Nick, whose film blog you should all be reading, that I'd finally seen Micmacs, the latest film from director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, opening at the Uptown Theatre this Friday. We're both quite fond of the fanciful, Rube-Goldberg-obsessed French filmmaker, so suffice to say we look forward to any effort he releases. However, Nick, who way back in September wrote about the film for MNDialog from the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, declared it a fun film, worthy of a look (mainly because anything from Jeunet is worth your time, to which I agree wholeheartedly), but ultimately he called it a disappointment, ranking it number 27 of 33 among the films he saw at the festival.

At the time, I thought Nick was nuts. How could it be that low among all the films he saw at Toronto last year? My mind could not conceive that this film could be disappointing. Seeing the trailer for Micmacs—which shows off Jeunet's patented, gold-tinted, left-of-center view of the world in all its glory—only reinforced my belief that Nick must have missed something. Perhaps he was tired and was bogged down with too many viewings in too short a time (after all, festivals are known to cause movie fatigue)? Hell, I even told him he had no soul!

Well, he does have a soul, and he was absolutely right about Micmacs. Three lessons can be learned from this experience:

1. Always admit when you are wrong, especially if you've been an asshole to a friend regarding their perfectly legitimate view (especially Nick, who forgets more every day about cinema than I will ever know in my lifetime) about a film you have not yet seen.

2. Just because you love a certain filmmaker and their work doesn't mean they won't someday disappoint you. It's the nature of all things. No one is perfect, and certainly no director's filmography is flawless (though Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson come awfully close).

3. Pre-judging a film is both unfair and downright wrong. But of course we all do it. It's great to be excited for a movie that hasn't come out yet, one that you're really jazzed to see. After all, if I didn't get all giddy with movie-geek excitement for certain films any more, that would be the sign that I should hang it up and find another career. But you can't let that excitement blind you from the truth, whether it's your subjective truth of a film's quality (or lack thereof) or someone else's. When it's all said and done, you've seen something you anticipated, you can admit you were either correct or totally misguided in your excited anticipation (respectively, some personal examples: The Dark Knight and those damn terrible Star Wars prequels).

Micmacs falls somewhere a little past the middle of that line of excitement. I was not totally misguided in my excitement, but Micmacs certainly is, to borrow a phrase from Jeff Daniels's memorable book snob character in The Squid and the Whale, "minor" Jeunet. It certainly is not without its charms and entertaining scenes. But those funny, exciting, and visually stunning parts, all thrown together and filled with plenty of Jeunet-ness, still did not make for a wholly satisfying film this time around.

As for the plot, Micmacs concerns our hero Bazil, played by French superstar comedic actor Dany Boon. He works at a video store in the city. One night he inadvertently becomes an innocent participant in a car chase and gun fight, which ends with a bullet lodged in his brain. He will survive, we are told (in a very funny scene) by the surgeon working on him, but only if they leave the bullet intact. He can die, though, at any moment. It's also an important detail that Bazil's father was killed in the desert (shown in the opening scene) by a mine. Set adrift and alone leaving the hospital, Bazil discovers the dueling "weapons manufacturers that caused all of his misfortune." He rather easily joins up with a peculiar group of individuals in a home made out of discarded objects (read: trash), and begins a plot for revenge.

You may have noticed I put quotes around the second-to-last sentence in the previous paragraph. These are the words straight from the press kit for Micmacs, and I used them verbatim to show what I think is the film's biggest flaw. It's just way too easy to make freaking weapons manufacturers the villains of your story. I'm sorry, but it is.

The film could be read in two ways that a defender of the film could use to argue my point, to which I will argue back:

1. It's just a lark, a cartoon, for entertainment purposes only. Sure, I can go with that. But then you'd have dismiss the final 20 minutes or so, when things get a little more serious than I feel the film earns the right to. You'd also have to dismiss the politics of the film, which are flimsy and rather childish (more on that later).

2. The entire story is a movie playing out in Bazil's head as he's dying. This interpretation I kind of like, even though it would be an almost direct rip-off from this 1990 movie (follow the link if you don't mind a spoiler). The opening credits, rendered in 1940s era black-and-white titles a la The Big Sleep (which Bazil is watching before he's killed), seemed to be tipping this off to the audience. But really nothing else furthers this argument, so I think it's null and void. However, it would've been the rare case where the it-was-all-in-his-head scenario actually worked, and would have strengthened the overall film.

Alas, Jeunet apologists will find it a difficult task to defend this film, especially its narrow-minded politics. I agree that the world would be a better place if guns and bombs were never created, bought and sold to anyone looking to blow some shit up, but the manufacturers are but a small piece of a very large problem. To put the blame for violence solely on them for the convenience of your film is lazy, short-sighted, and manipulative in the worst way.

Jeunet is a director who creates his own world through cinema, assembled from elements of the real world and fused with cartoon logic and a streak of dark humor. His films are uniquely his, and very French (if you follow me), something I'm drawn to and admire in filmmakers. He's the kind of director whereupon seeing a still from one of his films, you will know almost instantly it's one of his. This was pointed out recently in a nice slideshow feature on the director in the New York Times.

By my count, Jeunet has made three great films (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, Amelie), one lousy piece of what-was-he-thinking (Alien: Resurrection), and the other film, his most recent before Micmacs came along, A Very Long Engagement (for which he reunited with Amelie star Audrey Tautou), which I have yet to see. Micmacs, like another film I saw recently called Splice, is certainly better than the average summer blockbuster, and thus they are both totally worth your time if you want to see something different at the cinema, something with ideas that will leave some impression on you. But they both suffer from lackluster execution.

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Erik McClanahan's picture
Erik McClanahan

Erik McClanahan is a freelance film journalist and critic in Minneapolis. He is also co-host of KFAI's Movie Talk.