It’s fitting that the director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie), has the French word for ‘youth’ embedded in his surname: Micmacs’s dialogue is saturated with puns, jokes and untranslatable Gallic idioms, with its plot often little more than a string of knockabout set-pieces. It may be cast with adults, but their roles and relationships are unmistakably childlike, and even the more ostensibly grown-up aspects of the story often serve as little more than fodder for yet more slapstick escapades.
Ironically, it’s these darker elements that give the film its premise. As a child, Bazil (Dany Boon) lost his father to a land-mine; years later a stray bullet lodges in his brain. Jobless and homeless before long, he falls in with a motley ‘family’ of misfits living in a junk-yard grotto, and sets out to avenge himself on the two arms-manufacturers responsible for his twin misfortunes. Marshalling the various talents of his new-found accomplices, Bazil then proceeds to play the company directors (André Dussollier and Nicholas Marié) off against each other, resulting in a series of increasingly elaborate acts of sabotage.
The results of all this are certainly enjoyable, with the cast (including several Jeunet regulars) obviously relishing the madcap fun. The film’s attempts at satire, however, prove noticeably more hit-and-miss overall. The villains – like the heroes – are largely cartoonish, which makes for an uneasy tone whenever the story is forced to rely on the real-life destructiveness of their profession in forcing the audience to emotionally invest. The eventual humiliating come-uppance is noticeably awkward, with Dusollier and Marié’s petulant defiance to the last ringing much truer in a comedic setting than an apparent bawling apology to their victims. Meanwhile, the episode’s dissemination via youtube, rather than anything more constructive, feels particularly misguided as a forced feel-good payoff.
Jeunet has described Micmacs as a mix of all his previous films, and many of his trademark features are present: oddballs with bathetic back-stories, childlike yet determined protagonists, animated interpolations, not to mention – as Jeunet himself has admitted – a long-held obsession with ‘orphans fighting monsters’. The visual palate is once again warm and rich, with Jeunet’s favoured greens, yellows, and browns popping off the screen, and Jeunet’s love of endearingly literalist flights-of-fancy is further developed.
The effect of all this is reassuringly familiar, but luckily Micmacs has just enough to differentiate itself from its predecessors. The Parisian setting – though still noticeably cleaned-up in post-production – is less idealized and more obviously contemporary than before, and it’s notable that the backgrounds of tower-blocks and suburban canals don’t end up undermining Jeunet’s fantastical cinematic glow. Micmacs’s indebtedness to the silent cinema of Keaton and Chapin is in good hands given Jeunet’s love of the mischievous and irreverent, and this also serves to give the film a noticeable freshness which balances out some of the more clichéd elements – the obligatory tomboy rival/love interest in the form of Julie Ferrier’s Elastic Girl being a case in point. Further filmic allusions help maintain a lightness of touch, with the prologue’s build-up to satisfyingly old-Hollywood opening credits being particularly slick; meanwhile, using excerpts from several classic Max Steiner soundtracks proves an imaginative touch, with the quality of the original music alone seeming to ensure their effectiveness.
Occasionally, however, the references seem superficial and underdeveloped – a subtle penchant for Sergio Leone-like framings is dropped early on, denying the film a potentially interesting addition to an already fertile mix. To some extent the film as a whole suffers from a similar problem: the early sections seem to be striving for something beguiling and elusive, beautiful even when in ostensibly shabby environments and with the childlike elements emanating from Bazil himself, rather than seeming imposed upon the situation. As soon as Bazil enters the grotto, however, this intriguing atmosphere is replaced with an altogether more safe mix of slapstick and whimsy. The results are certainly enjoyable, satisfying and developed with undeniable flair, but the incongruity of the early scenes – as well as the time it takes for the plot to establish itself – leaves a lingering impression of uncertainty – it may not undermine the later fun, but it does leave one wondering just what might have been.