Micmacs is an abbreviation of a longer French phrase that more or less means “nonstop shenanigans,” which is an apt description of the new Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. The director—most prominently of Delicatessen (with Marc Caro) and Amelié—favors narratives overstuffed with intricate details, deviations, and yes, shenanigans. Jeunet's films consciously recall, among many other obvious influences, the films of Gilliam, Keaton, and Chaplin, the sci-fi films of Fritz Lang, and the cartoons of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. The mise-en-scène is as inventive and suffocating as that wild fusion of sensibilities might imply: The colors are primary and ostentatiously visionary (Jeunet really likes a green that could be called “Beatles apple”), and the blocking is clever and beautiful, but also self-consciously sharp and pronounced and clearly fussed over.
Jeunet's films generally irritate viewers who see them as a scrapbook of vague ideas and devices in place of a real movie, and I've often counted myself among that portion of the moviegoing public. Micmacs is Jeunet's most brazenly scrapbook movie in construction; it's almost literally one sideways bit of meant-to-be-transporting invention after another. The surprise is that this nearly complete abandonment of conventional narrative pretense has (somewhat) freed Jeunet. Micmacs is frequently every bit as irritating as many of the director's past films, but its free-wheeling shagginess is also occasionally engaging. Jeunet doesn't hide his quirks behind a cupie doll with whom he pretends to empathize this time. The structure and the anarchy aren't at war with one another in Micmacs—the anarchy has won.
And this anarchy leads to an irrational film that plays like an album with images and ideas circling around a general theme, which in this case is a surprisingly pointed frustration with arms manufacturers that serve as a stand-in for the general endlessness of global war. Jeunet's champions have claimed that his films are darker and more emotionally varied than his detractors allow. This is somewhat true, but the filmmaker's concept of human decency—which he would probably claim he takes from silent cinema—is so broad and cute that you normally find yourself rooting for the villains by perverse default, as they are usually underplayed (by comparison) and therefore bear closer resemblance to creatures that could be said to be human. (A Very Long Engagement was a step toward a richer, more varied leading role, as that heroine was allowed to feel pain and conflict that imbued the impressive visuals with emotional grandeur and meaning.)
Micmacs, initially, is a return to the tortured innocent routine, and the first 30 minutes might lose you. I once again found myself rooting for the villains, the arms manufacturers—played, deliciously, by André Dussollier and Nicoles Marié—that are targeted by Bazil (Danny Boon), an awkward little man they unknowingly ruined twice over with their amoral proliferation of weapons. Initially, Bazil is a traditional Jeunet simpleton meant to stand for all the good that's unjustly trampled on in the world, but the director's invention and anger elevate Bazil's stature. The revenge scenario—which suggests a cross between a Looney Tunes short, the Mission: Impossible TV series, and Red Harvest—allows Bazil a bitterness that's removed from the character of Amelié. The vignettes here, even at their most redundant and tedious, are charged with a restless frustration that partially grounds the fanciness.
The other performances are so broad that they take a little getting used to, but they offer a warm community of eccentric faces that effectively contrasts with Bazil's earlier loneliness. Dominique Pinon, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Julie Ferrier, and Yolande Moreau play a surrogate family of outcasts who take Bazil in and help him in his aim to take down the weapons merchants, and their scenes have a heightened simplicity that occasionally achieves the classical movie pathos that Jeunet frequently aims for in his films. The family's home—a dome of garbage that could be the homeless shack of a child's dreams—is fashioned as a nurturing cocoon of gadgets and loud, daffy elders. This set, one of the more inviting and moving to be seen in a Jeunet film, is also mildly revelatory. We see the filmmaker's career-long attraction to stuff as a dubiously nostalgic yearning for the fleeting safety a child can feel when surrounded by his toys and engulfed in his containable world.
Still, one wishes that Jeunet were more often capable of understanding that enough is enough. The revenge scenario promises a live-action cartoon with satirical undertones, and the contrast of the surrogate home with the warring factories is simple and effective. But the film takes forever to get going, and there are numerous fits and starts even then. Jeunet counters every inventive touch—such as a method for stealing illegal drugs from a locked mailbox—with lame, eye-rolling bits, such as an episode with a fat security going red and puffy while watching a couple have sex. Jeunet is a showman who wants to give you 10 movies for the price of one, and, like many showman, he fails to understand that ten half movies isn't half of one complete movie. Micmacs, like most Jeunet films, ultimately leaves you feeling hungry and pummeled.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet's films warrant a pristine presentation that fully justifies what are essentially moving coffee-table books overstuffed with arresting images. The image here is better than adequate, but the colors don't quite pop, as the darks tend to dominate the brighter colors. One wishes for more contrast and clarity. The sound mix is quite good though, maintaining the density of Jeunet's often fastidious attention to detail—which can be a narrative liability.
Jeunet resists the temptation to play the role of mysterious, eternally peeved auteur. The director's audio commentary is lively, free-associational, and engaging. Ditto the Q&A, despite the typical audience questions that essential boil down to "Where do you get your ideas?" The making-of is composed of contained vignettes that allow us to watch the making of the movie unimpeded by narration or talking-head interviews, which is refreshingly matter-of-fact. The "Absurd Deaths" feature allows you to briefly see the evolution of the film's animated sequences.
Micmacs is frequently every bit as irritating as many of the director's past films, but it's also occasionally engaging in its free-wheeling determination to please its maker.