This was the verrrrrrrrry last thing I saw at the Toronto Film Festival this year, squeezed in against all odds on the morning I was leaving town, after staying up all night writing, watching movies, and hanging out with Cinematical's Scott Weinberg. I wasn't even technically supposed to be able to attend this particular type of screening because I didn't have a press badge. So it was a miracle I sat down in the theater at all.
The film is pretty much exactly what you hope a new film from Jeunet is going to be, unless you don't like his particular flavor of whimsy, in which case, "Micmacs" is pretty much exactly what you dread a new film from Jeunet is going to be.
I've been a fan of his work since "Delicatessen," and with "The City Of Lost Children," admiration turned into unbridled adoration. I still think that's one of the best things he's been associated with in any way. It's a gorgeous, crazy, broken-hearted fairy tale, and I love pretty much everything about it. "Alien Resurrection"? Not so much. My wife and I were still in the early days of our relationship when "Amelie" came out, and we both went nuts for it. I respect "A Very Long Engagement," but I don't think it's completely successful. Even so, I think I would have savored it a bit more if I knew it was going to be five years before he made another movie.
"Micmacs à tire-larigot" is, for the most part, worth the wait. It is ripe with the same degree of visual invention that fans have come to expect from Jeunet, in service of a plot that has all the mechanical intricacy of his best work. You could almost call it a heist film, except nothing gets stolen. It's got that same sort of "band of thieves" vibe that makes those movies so much fun when they work, although here it's a team of truly eccentric outsiders who come together as an unlikely family to help right a wrong. As with the earlier films by Jeunet, that plot description can hardly evoke the experience of the film, because so much of what marks his work is the way he textures in details and the way he stages sight gags, and "Micmacs" is stuffed with material, both foreground and background, that rewards close attention.
Danny Boon stars as Bazil, a video store clerk whose life was defined by the loss of his father in childhood and his mother's mental collapse which essentially left him orphaned. He's managed to rebuild an existence for himself until the night he's working by himself at the video store only to catch a stray bullet in the forehead. He ends up hospitalized, then loses his home by the time he's back on his feet, and the final blow comes when he realizes that the company that manufactured the bullet that hit him is located directly across the road from the company that made the land mine that killed his father. He's not sure what to do about it, or about anything for that matter, until he discovers a strange assortment of people living underground, in a sort of secret home built from trash, discarded people surrounded by discarded goods, and they take him in, recognizing him as a kindred spirit. These are the Micmacs, and once he's been taken in by them, a plan starts to come into focus.
Basically, they run a riff on "Yojimbo" on the two companies, with Bazil working with his team, each of them with a different skill set, to pit the two companies against each other so that they'll destroy themselves. Boon makes a fascinating comic center to the film, and his performance is reason enough to see the film. There's a genuine undercurrent of sorrow to his work, which makes the laughs count, and which grounds even the most absurd moments in the film. It's crucial that his work walk that line because Jeunet works to balance a difficult mix of tones in the film. He wants to make some serious points about the ripple effect in the real world from the manufacture and use of land mines and other weaponry, and in the third act, he drops some fairly serious imagery on the audience. Still, the film as a whole is perhaps the least "real" thing that Jeunet has ever made, and he amplifies the unreal as much as possible. One of my favorite choices he makes is the way he uses Max Steiner's music. Steiner is one of the fathers of the modern film score, pioneering the way film music was used with his work on films like "King Kong," and Jeunet scores the entire film with Steiner tracks.
The one thing that really hurts the film, in my opinion, is the casting of the female lead. Julie Ferrier is an acclaimed actress whose one-woman shows have been very popular, and I'm sure she has her fans. She's just not the sort of person you cast in this particular role, though. Jeunet has always been good at casting his women, and obviously Audrey Tautou was an amazing discovery when he was casting "Amelie." Here, Ferrier plays a contortionist, one of the Micmacs, and the entire romantic subplot between her and Boon feels contrived, like it's happening because it's in the script, not because it makes any sort of organic sense. The love story is so perfunctory that the film would have been stronger without it, and it would have removed my hesitations regarding Ferrier's casting. It's not that she's bad in the film... it's that I can't imagine her as the focus in a romantic storyline. She'd be much more fitting if that one element of the story was just surgically lifted out.
Overall, though, "Micmacs" offers a fistful of inventive set pieces, some wonderful off-center humor, and one of the most visually ravishing rides of the year, and when Sony Pictures Classics releases it in the US in 2010, it's a film I would strongly recommend to viewers who like their international cinema served up extra quirky.
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