So how could the latest Jeunet film nearly up and pass me by? Was I not reading the right bits of film news? Guess not! Well well, little film. You're not getting away from me that easily. I'm going to buy a ticket, yes I am, and then I am going to watch you. See if I don't!
I am glad I caught it because I was thoroughly charmed by the entire thing. It's a revenge story about a man whose father was killed by a landmine and who himself narrowly escapes death when he accidentally gets a bullet lodged in his forehead during a random drive-by shooting.
With me so far? It really is light-hearted, I assure you. What Jeunet has done is take all the grand things he obviously loves about Hollywood, both the Golden Age and the silent era, and mixes them into a clever heist/con style film (itself a throwback to the Ealing Studios capers such as The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob. Jeunet wanders back and forth from country to country here.) Hell, he freely and without apology uses Max Steiner's original scores from several of Steiner's 1940s films. And you know what? It works.
It helps that our leading man Bazil is brilliantly handled by Dany Boon. He understands Jeunet's wishes to combine silent film and Golden Age cinema, and effortlessly handles physical comedy as he does verbal. There's a sequence early on in the film where Bazil wanders the streets, out of work and out of luck. He stands near a soup kitchen but his pride won't let him walk over and take a plate. Either that or he's slightly smitten with the soup kitchen girl, who notices him lingering and beckons him over in welcome.
The scene that follows is entirely silent except for the soundtrack. She entreats, he demurs, you can tell she understands his feelings yet insists, he points to the taxi stand nearby -- no really, just waiting for a taxi, and when one does pull up he hurries round the other side of it and disappears, watching her all the while.
Every spot, every gesture, every emotional turn, every shot is just so very much like a Chaplin film (whom of course the French adored to the point of heroic worship) that I'm now going back to see if this may have actually been a shot-by-shot homage. It was short but it was very, very sweet and incredibly effective.
That's the kind of Chaplin homage you want in your films. There's plenty of slapstick in Micmacs, make no mistake about it, but when Jeunet decides to showcase the spirit of Charlot, he doesn't just bring out the slapstick Tramp who eats boots, twirls his cane, and makes dinner rolls dance. Anyone can do that. Instead, Jeunet brings out that comically poignant side of the Tramp character and it's for one short scene. Brilliant.
Both Bazil and the Tramp are none too fond of authority, and that is where they part ways. Charlot is happiest kicking a policeman in the backside or avoiding a ship's steward; Bazil wants nothing more than to bring down the two arms makers which ruined his life. Jeunet always makes sure the dark side lingers even in the most cheerful of moments -- Bazil's brain-bullet could kill him at any time -- and that drives his quest for revenge.
But it's not wrathful vengeance. The darkness doesn't go that far. Bazil's not the John McClane kind of guy. He worked in a video store all his life. He knew the classics by heart (again, reflecting Jeunet's influences) and once he starts in on his scheme to pit the two manufacturers against each other, he clearly relishes the roles he creates for his group of con artists and the performances they put on.
His group comes from his adopted family, another one of Jeunet's favorite motifs. The eccentric group of outcasts live in a home carved out of a junkyard (remember The Three Investigators and their hideout? Exactly like that, man) and enjoy spending their time salvaging and cataloging material. The brood is overseen by a matriarchal type who wants nothing more than to cook and care for her brood (Yolande Moreau, who played Amélie's landlady.) The gang includes a man nicknamed Remington for his typewriter and collection of cliches (he writes down every new one he hears), a young savant named Calculatrice who can accurately measure and keep time and all sorts of groovy numbers-related things, a contortionist who eventually becomes Bazil's love interest (and their brand of physical comedy work so well together), a grizzled ex-con who brings Bazil to the family, a tiny old tinker of a fellow who creates mechanical toys out of the junk collected, and a human cannonball played by Dominique Pinon, who played Louison in Delicatessen and all the clones in City of Lost Children. The guy is just a joy to watch no matter what he does.
And then comes a convoluted plot to take down both the munitions company that built the landmine which killed Bazil's father, and the arms company that made the bullet currently lodged in his head. It's not a commando A-Team style attack. Our heroes don't kill anybody. People die, but it's not really the good guys' fault. They are just playing both companies against each other in a lovely complicated scheme. And they conduct surveillance and grand larceny and all sorts of groovy things in clever, junkyard circus magician ways. An alarm clock wound to a string which tips over a jar of bees onto some guards, for example. Hollow suitcases with false bottoms for quick suitcase-snatching. I can't give it all away but you have to figure that if a character is introduced as a human cannonball, at some point he is going to go flying.
Some of the forms of revenge are hilarious. Others create unintended consequences. The third party involved in this scheme are the military leaders of an African country plotting revolution (and seeking weapons contracts however they can with the amoral company presidents) and their reactions to certain events play havoc with Bazil's well thought-out scheme. The ending brings in the contemporary Internet age and uses it effectively and accurately, and the love interest even works pretty well too. Bazil and the contortionist don't just work off each other with physical comedy; they have some lovely back-and-forth Howard Hawks/Preston Sturges-type dialogues as well.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet could have created an awful self-indulgent mess by sticking so many different film types together -- hell, he even throws in a little Michel Gondry in a few sequences -- but it works. It works because the story and characters are so well-crafted. The result is an idiosyncratic caper film with odd and endearing characters whose charm and slapstick overcome the dark overtones without totally ignoring them. I really liked it.
There's also a great meta running joke throughout the film involving billboards in the city. What are they advertising? The film. What are they depicting? The current scene. I don't know if I spotted them all, but I loved watching for them. Again, it's a move which teeters on the line between self-indulgent and brilliant, and then as far as I'm concerned hops right on over to the brilliant side and stays there.