October 2, 2010


Thirty years into his career, watching a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film is like attending a family reunion. His latest feature, Micmacs à-tire-larigot is no exception, as even those who've only seen the odd Jeunet film are bound to recognise at least a couple of the remarkable faces the director tends to employ. There's Urbain Cancelier and Belgian Yolande Moreau who both appeared in Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain; there's Louis-Marie Audubert, Rachel Berger, Stéphane Butet, Tony Gaultier, Stéphanie Gesnel, and Myriam Roustan who all appeared in Un long dimanche de fiançailles.

Then there's Jean-Pierre Becker, and André Dussollier who appeared in both Un long dimanche… and …Amélie; Patrick Paroux who appeared in Un long dimanche…, …Amélie, and Delicatessen; Gérald Weingand who appeared in Un long dimanche…, …Amélie, and Foutaises; and of course Dominique Bettenfeld, and Dominique Pinon who've appeared in practically everything Jeunet's directed in the past couple of decades. Never mind the stalwarts behind the camera, like editor Hervé Schneid, production designer Aline Bonetto, costume designer Madeline Fontaine, sound editor Gérard Hardy, location scout Aude Lemercier, stunt coordinator Rémi Canaple and the Cauderlier family stunt team, among others.

The familial impression is further strengthened by the director recycling scenes form his previous films, to a point where (for instance) Dominique Pinion appears to be appearing as himself, taking another turn in a role he's previously played. Yet the clear nods aimed at longtime fans don't turn Micmacs… into a "greatest hits" compilation. Instead, the impression is one of watching a new production by one's favourite small, local theatre company, as opposed to an internationally renowned film director's latest feature, which just happened to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Though the film's title (perhaps most closely translated as "Endless Shenanigans") may evoke the indigenous people of the Atlantic provinces and the Gaspé peninsula to many Canadians, Micmacs… is actually a diverting, light farce on the rather serious subject of manufacturing and trading in armaments. Its narrative follows the exploits of former video rental store clerk, who — aided by a ragtag band of allies — attempts to avenge himself on the two weapons manufacturers whose various lethal goods have unalterably altered his life.

It's not the most intrinsically merry premise perhaps, but — as director Jeunet has demonstrated in the past — polemics on serious subjects touching everyone's lives can more readily find an audience if they first manage to make it smile. Sending out an invitation that's hard to refuse is always more effective than beating people over the head with the issue. Besides, as a filmmaker, Jeunet has never been interested in creating anything except imaginary worlds and his films have never contained any "realistic" grit — care-worn and well-loved artifacts, certainly, but all of them well-maintained and retaining a shade of their original colour.

As it was to Orson Welles, to Jeunet film is merely a device for wonderment, a toy, a long row of treasure chests in the cinematic attic — one containing sets, another costumes, a third stories, and so on. Jeunet seems to endeavor to throw as many of them open as he possibly can with each of his films. However, among the familiar there are also brand new faces. For example, leading man Daniel "Dany" Boon, who walked on in the shoes of the films protagonist just as the originally cast Jamel Debbouze (perhaps best known to international audiences for his part in …Amélie) walked off.

Boon, currently one of France's greatest comedy stars and a filmmaker in his own right, owns his part (his character's younger self even portrayed in the film by his son Noé) to a point at which it almost becomes difficult to tell whether one's watching a film by Boon or Jeunet. But the latter's aesthetics and brand of narrative is ultimately unmistakable. (A long time admirer of sculptor and "electromechanomaniacal" device creator Gilbert Peyre, Jeunet specifically created the Micmacs… character Petit Pierre — a designer of ingenious automatons and contraptions — in order to include six of Peyre's creations in his film.)

Though written in merely three months by Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant (Jeunet's main writing partner over the past decade), the idea for Micmacs… dates back to the mid-nineties, when Jeunet and his collaborator at the time, Marc Caro, were editing their second feature, La cité des enfants perdus, near one of the arms manufacturer Dassault's factories. Frequently encountering Dassault employees over lunch in a nearby restaurant, Jeunet began wondering about their private lives. He tried to imagine these seemingly well-adjusted, educated, polite engineers, putting their kids to bed at night, having spent the major part of the day inventing ways in which to most effectively kill and maim other people.

Despite shunning realistic milieus, Jeunet pays a lot of attention to detail, and meticulously researching a subject even if he doesn’t intend to depict it in an entirely realistic fashion. After all, the emotions he seeks to evoke are quite real even if set in peculiar circumstances. Hence, the process of making Micmacs… included a visit to a major weapons manufacturer, and even incorporates an original soundbite from one of France's leading gunsmiths, expounding how much more profitable it is to wound or maim an enemy than it its to kill him.

Such pronouncements are being made in the real world, even though they may seem to have originated in a lugubrious nightmare. To Jeunet the obvious countermeasure to such intricately dedicated malevolence is a casual ragtag group of ingenious panhandlers; an improvised troupe taking on cynicism and detachment from ordinary life with a unique blend of comedy and acrobatics. In other words, Jeunet's response to evil is (as it was in his first feature, Delicatessen) to send in the clowns.

From a grander perspective, Micmacs… can be said to explore the impact and growing import of social networks in people's lives, and the manner in which they in some cases come to replace or serve as a substitute for a "normal" family. Not just in our personal lives but in society as a whole: new collectives are taking shape. As insubstantial as Jeunet's film may first seem, it celebrates the collective feats of the common man — what the self-appointed elites of our societies refer to as "little people", or, plainly, the vast majority of us — and the effect each one of us can have on our societies when we band together.

Elected representatives, and a media obsessed with what doesn't even qualify as gossip, are portrayed in Micmacs… as little else than a puppetry show of sedative propaganda. It's a film that clings to the ideal, now commonly considered quaint and naïve, that callous individuals not only deserve but — more importantly — can be held accountable. Not that Jeunet ever gets completely dogmatic: even the film's somewhat grotesque gunsmiths are shown to have intensely human traits. Neither is the film a Luddite call to arms against technology. Rather, it's a case of taking on hi-tech with a much lowlier variety; scavengers whose greatest assets are their communally accumulated wits gunning after an industry that's armed to the teeth with the latest gear.

But the sheer ingenuity the film's heroes rely on is complemented by precisely the kind of social networks the digital age has made possible. Never mind that the filmmaker himself has relied on cutting edge technology for special effects and editing throughout his entire career, Micmacs… being no exception with some 350 visual effects shots. Ultimately, Micmacs… isn't so much a story of asymmetrical class-warfare, as it is the indulgent creation of a born cineaste. From the Tex Avery intimation (Jeunet published a book about Avery shortly before the pioneering animator's death), to the half-dozen Max Steiner scores (that of The Big Sleep in particular) combined in its soundtrack, Micmacs… is as much about creating a world as it is about changing one.

Additional input by Mathias Luthi.

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