Saturday, 6 March 2010

MicMacs; you'd have to be French

Jean Pierre Jeunet is, by conventional wisdom, completely bonkers. I'm not sure I buy into that idea, but Jeunet's certainly not like the other children. This is probably a good thing, because most of the other children really aren't all that good at what they do. Not being like them is probably a good start towards doing something worthwhile. I'd seen the trailer for MicMacs before I saw the film, and so when on Wednesday evening, just before I left the office, Mary asked me what I was going to see this week, I had an answer ready. MicMacs, I said. More lunacy from the man who brought us Amelie. Just going on the trailer, I said grandly, it looks as though everyone involved in the production was working with a scuba system filled with LSD; the performers would have been on some kind of drip feed of finest blotter acid just to keep up. Oh, said Mary uncertainly.

The reality turned out not to be quite as hallucinogenic as all that. Wes Anderson (another of nature's not-like-the-other-children types) was quite a bit madder in Fantastic Mr Fox, just to take one example out of the air. It's an engagingly odd affair, but a lot of the time it's almost depressingly grounded. The protagonist, Bazil, has a terrible life. We get introduced to him in his childhood when he finds out that his father has been blown to bits clearing mines in Algeria; then his mother has a breakdown and he's sent off to a horrible boarding school (it seems to be the male version of Coco Chanel's school in Coco before Chanel; from my limited exposure to French cinema, I'm coming to the conclusion that schooldays are not the happiest days of French lives); he breaks out of that and we next see him as an adult working in a rundown video store. Where he gets himself shot in the head; by the time they let him out of the hospital, he's been turfed out of his flat, the other people in the block stole all his stuff and his boss has hired a replacement for him. Twenty minutes in, Bazil's reduced to living on the streets and scraping a living hustling on the edge of other street people's entertainments. It ought to be in even more depressing than it is. In part it's not ghastly because Bazil's such a nice guy; he's so winning that even though he's having a terrible time, his sunny outlook softens the edges.

Anyhow, the scene having been set, Bazil is taken in by the denizens of a scrap yard, who live in a collective of one-note characters scavenging materials and getting by on the slimmest of margins. This is actually where Jeunet delivers something you wouldn't get from anyone else; the scavengers each have a defining quirk - the thrill seeker who dreams of being in the Guinness Book of Records for human cannonball, the bespectacled woman who can calculate the size or duration of anything at all just by looking, the contortionist, the Congolese ethnographer who speaks entirely in clichés because he's collecting figures of speech, the doddery old man who makes pointless mechanical toys - but the actors who've been hired to do each part run with what they've got and give every one of these characters a real and vivid personality which goes beyond what the script needs. And the script is intentionally sparse with words; most of the sympathetic characters only have nicknames. Only the villains have full names, and when the credits finally roll, a staggering percentage of the acting roles are descriptions, not names at all. But because Jeunet is working in France and is taken seriously there, he has his pick of theatrical and TV actors who can take such deliberately underwritten stuff and magic it into people you can believe in.

Most of the movie is about Bazil's plan to wreak havoc on the two arms companies which have blighted his life; one by making the landmine that blew up his father and the other by making the bullet that hit him in the head. Havoc is duly, and imaginatively, wreaked though part of the charm of the movie is that Bazil's plans don't really work as he expects them to, so that most of his grand designs devolve into frantic improvisation as they collide with the two problems which don't usually affect Hollywood plans; in Hollywood, only the protagonist actually has a plan, while in MicMacs the arms dealers have plans of their own, and in Hollywood gadgets work, while in MicMacs, there's only so much reliance you can place on "salvaged equipment".

Although there's a lot of Heath Robinson ingenuity in the plots, most of the really satisfying moments come from extreme simplicity. Bazil mounts a classic man-in-the-middle attack on the companies by impersonating a buyer so as to derail a huge dirty buy. The company representatives are told (unbeknownst to each other) to show up at a busy train station with their samples for a meet. Then the gang steal their sample cases by the marvelously simple expedient of standing beside them with much bigger cases with open bottoms which they drop over the sample case; one second the case is there, the next it's been swallowed up by the bigger luggage. I was wondering how that doesn't happen every day in crowded stations.

And it's that kind of thing that leaves me saying that the movie isn't actually as hallucinogenic as the trailer had made me expect. It's quirky and whimsical and full of glancing references to other movies, but most of the time the effects are being driven by small and ordinary things. They're small and ordinary things happening in a completely fantastical and whimsical world, but somehow while you're watching it, it all hangs together beautifully. One very funny bit comes near the end, where the villains of the piece have been shoved into a car boot and dragged off to an uncertain fate. We see the next few moments through their perception; they're hooded and being dragged through a series of transitions that suggest they've been bundled onto a jet, flown to North Africa and dragged out into the wilderness of the desert to face their just desserts. And as I was watching this, I was impressed with Jeunet for respecting his audience enough to know that they'd know that this was a fakeout and not feeling the need to spell it out. What impressed me even more was that when the villains get to find out it was a fake-out, Jeunet flashed back to how the fakeout was done, and MADE THE SCENE WORK. That takes something special.

Although it's a wonderful film, I did think that the anti-arms company message was a bit too heavy handed - to use a word from TVTropes, it was anvilicious. That's actually my only crab. I had great fun. But that brings me back to my title. I was constantly wishing that I was actually French, because I really felt like I was missing out on all kinds of subtext in the movie; it was most noticeable with Remington (the cliché-spouter) where I wanted to know what hackneyed French phrases he was using. The sub titlers worked wonders getting across English phrases, but I knew in my heart of hearts that I was missing out much richer jokes in the French. Over and above that, just as when I watched Nightwatch and Daywatch and realised that some of the fun for Russian viewers would have been the resonances from other roles played by the leads, I knew that the French audiences would have been contrasting the players with their other roles. All that said, I was distracted all the way through by the fact that Dany Boon, who plays Bazil, was disconcertingly like a less sardonic Colin Murphy....

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