Micmacs (2009) dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Starring: Dany Boon, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Yolande Moreau, Julie Ferrier, Dominique Pinion, Michel Cremades, Marie-Julie Baup, Andre Dussolier and Nicolas Marie
By Greg Klymkiw
There is a particular brand of whimsy that forces me to eject globs of bilious half-digested food matter into whatever receptacle might be handy (and God forbid those around me if I am bereft of such a loving cup). My revulsion is so intense that even hearing the word "whimsy" (or seeing it or writing it) can inspire in me, at the very least, the dry heaves. In spite of this, there are many movies of a whimsical nature that I like or even love which leads me to believe that ultimately, not all whimsy is created equal.
Let's take Tim Burton, for example. If I ever have to see even one more frame from "Big Fish" again, I will find a water tower, climb atop it with a high-powered sniper rifle and start shooting innocent passersby at random. "Edward Scissorhands", however, is a movie I am always happy to see - not a steady diet, mind you, but enough to remind me of what I love about it (and to pinch me on occasion with respect to its occasional dollops of minor bile-inducement). Perhaps it's as simple as feeling that the whimsy is machine-tooled in the former and tied genuinely to emotional truth in the latter. Granted, we feel Burton's weighty hand in each movie, and his intentions might well have been true in both pictures, but one seems false, while the other seems perfectly natural in its use of magical realism.
Of late, Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a director who has sadly allowed whimsy to consume his work in a manner that is mind bogglingly sickening. His first major solo directorial effort after the thoroughly decent, but mildly overrated Caro collaborations "Delicatessen" and "City of Lost Children" was "Alien Resurrection", the third sequel to Ridley Scott's absolutely perfect blend of science fiction and horror. While all the sequels to Scott's near-masterpiece "Alien" seem ill-conceived, Jeunet's foray into the franchise was poppy, pulpy and, at times, downright scary - a far cry from the dour, humourless clamour of Cameron's "Aliens" and Fincher's dour, humourless mess that was "Alien3". (While the first AVP was stupid, it was at least kind of fun.) So when "Amelie" finally came along, I was primed for more Jeunet - especially since "Alien Resurrection" was so solid.
I saw "Amelie" with my wife. We had (and continue to have) a silent code at the movies (which now extends to my daughter and I). When we both agree that a movie is intolerable, we leave the theatre and sneak into something else in the multiplex. The code is rather simple and not obtrusive to others in the cinema. I turn my head towards her and just stare until she turns her head and either nods (in which case, we totally walk the fuck out of there) or gently shakes it (and we give it more time). Sometimes it's vice-versa, but usually (and surprisingly, no doubt, to those who know me), I am usually the instigator of the courteous silent "let's hit the fuckin' road!" With "Amelie", I relentlessly drilled holes into the side of my wife's head for what seemed an eternity. She refused to look at me. Her eyes were transfixed upon the screen. Finally, I jabbed her with my elbow. She turned. I had the tell-tale "let's fuck off" look on my face. She returned my gaze with surprising confidence and whispered, "Please let me enjoy this movie." I relented and spent the entire time wanting to rip that idiotic grin off Audrey Tatou's bone-headedly whimsical face whilst swallowing cold lumps of vomit that needed to desperately escape my gullet.
I never bothered to see "A Very Long Engagement" but in order to make my Jeunet-hatred complete and most importantly, truly informed, I suppose I will, at some point, nail my feet to the floor and suffer through the damned thing. For now, however, Jeunet's latest dive into the cesspool that is whimsy, more than makes up for this omission in my cinema literacy.
Strangely enough, "Micmacs" opens rather promisingly. At the beginning, we find ourselves on a Moroccan desert where a group of soldiers are sweeping for mines. Sadly, one of the soldiers discovers a mine and carefully sweeps sand away from it. In doing so, the strangely embossed logo on it is the last thing he'll see as the mine explodes in his face.
Back in France, a dreamy young boy hears the jangling of a telephone. After his mother answers, he hears her grief-stricken sobs. He peers in to see her trembling, her face almost draining of sanity as he stares with a mixture of knowing dread and confusion.
After the funeral, the mourners gather in the family home of the fallen soldier. The boy's mother is catatonic. When presented with a box filled with his father's effects, the boy makes a mysterious find that will become important later in his life. Mom is carted off in an ambulance to the loony bin and the young boy is sent to a private school and orphanage run by the meanest nuns I've seen since my own childhood. At one point we see him forced to kneel for hours on end, his bare kneecaps resting painfully on a long square of thin wood. (For me, it was bare-kneed on uncooked rice, but that's another story.)
Thirty years later, our dreamy young orphan has grown to manhood and promisingly appears to us as Bazil, an even-more-dreamy sad sack working late night in a video store. Happily, Bazil is played by the truly brilliant actor/comedian Dany ("Joyeux Noel") Boon - his gentle poker-face endearing him to us immediately. Even more heartening (and heartbreaking in all the right ways) is how we find him sitting alone in the dusty, old store watching "The Big Sleep" in French and expertly mouthing all of Bogart's dialogue.
Great! So far! No whimsy alarm bells of note and a vaguely melancholy drama with one of the world's great actors.
Bazil's cinematic Heaven is rudely interrupted by a car chase outside the store. Two thugs speed along, shooting at each other. Bazil walks outside to survey the ensuing carnage worthy of a Luc Besson film.
So far, so good. Perhaps we'll be immersed in a noir-like thriller.
And then, my heart sinks. One of the thugs is shot. His gun flies in the air. It discharges as it hits the ground and a bullet propels across the street and directly into Bazil's skull. This would officially be whimsy alarm bell Number One!
In the operating room, the presiding surgeon explains that if they leave the bullet in, Bazil has a chance to live a normal life - but just a CHANCE. There will always be the threat that it could discharge in his brain. If they operate, he will possibly live, but as a vegetable.
Bazil's fate is then decided when the surgeon flips a coin. This would officially be whimsy alarm bell Number Two!
With bullet in brain, Bazil is discharged to find that all his worldly goods have been confiscated and/or stolen, that he has been evicted from his apartment for not paying rent and that he's lost his job at the video store to a cartoon-watching, big-breasted bubblehead who conveniently has found and bestows upon him the casing of the bullet in his brain which also bears the strange markings we've seen earlier. The plot, as it were, is thickening - like a salt-free split-pea soup.
Bazil is forced to become a street performer whose specialty is recreating silent movie comedy routines. He is, in essence, a mime artist.
And yup, you guessed it, this would officially be whimsy alarm bell Number Three! Or, in the parlance of baseball enthusiasts the world over: "Three strikes and yerrrrrrrrr out!"
At this point, my only thought is, how bad can this possibly get?
Well, hold on a moment and you, like I did, will receive the answer.
After a mime performance in the street, he is hailed over to the table of a distinguished looking old rapscallion (Jean-Pierre Marielle) who introduces himself as Slammer (he's spent most of his life in prison - get it?). Bazil is convinced by Slammer that he needs a safe haven, a place to be useful, a family. Slammer bids Bazil follow him to what could be a new home and beginning.
Here is where the vomit-meter overloads. Within the bowels of a dank cave-like environ, Bazil is introduced to a group of fellow misfits who live happily together - away from the cruelty of the outside world, and spend their time assembling other people's junk and ever-so whimsically, transform the trash into a variety of magical contraptions and/or art. Jeunet stalwart Dominique Pinon plays some loser who wants to get himself into the world record books for being a cannonball artist. Claude Zidi regular Michel Cremades plays an especially offensive whimsy-poo who creates all manner of "magical" art and toys and has the stupidest bovine expression on a human face since Audrey Tatou in "Amelie". As if this wasn't sickening enough, there is a female contortionist who becomes Bazil's love interest and some idiotically whimsical young lady who can only communicate through complex calculations (Ulrich Seidl knows such a character needs to be treated disdainfully as a cretin - much like a similar character in the admirable Austrian iconoclast's "Dog Days).
If any of this hasn't invoked bile yet, I've saved the most disgustingly whimsical character for last - a cherry, so to speak, on an ice cream sundae, flavoured with waste-treatment-plant sludge for syrup. The matriarch of this utterly horrid "family" is the porcine Mama Chow who dotes over all the "children" (losers) since she moronically lost her own children when they entered a house of mirrors at the circus and never came out. I can only assume she is meant to be rather challenged in the brain department.
Oh yeah, and if you're still not convinced to avoid this grotesquerie, feel free to become Father Damien and hop onto the isle of Molokai that is "Micmacs" and thrill to this group of loveable spastic lunatics as they band together to destroy the arms manufacturers (yes, the companies bear the same mysterious logos we've seen earlier) who orphaned Bazil with the mine that killed his Dad and turned him into a walking dead man with the bullet that's lodged in his brain.
What finally drives me insane about this picture and "Amelie" (and no doubt, the one I still have to force myself to see) is that Jeunet is clearly a born filmmaker. Cinema is hardwired into his DNA. He is not only an artist of the highest order, but he's proven that he also has proficiency, a sense of humour and the potential to make some great movies that will truly knock us on our ass, or, at the very least, scare the living wits out of us.
This horrendous phase of machine-tooled whimsy must end. Better Jeunet should instil vomit through the GENRE of horror rather than the horror that is this unrelentingly happy-happy-happy-let's-do-good-for-society nonsense. The first fifteen minutes of the picture suggested that greatness would follow. I try to imagine the picture it could have been, but I suppose that's completely unfair. Jeunet decided to crap where he sleeps and instead, delivered a bunch of "loveable" losers to make (a) losers feel good about themselves and (b) those who do not consider themselves losers to feel good about EMPATHIZING with losers.
There are many who will love this film. I'm not one of them. Give me the Caro-Jeunet collaborations or "Alien Resurrection" anytime over this whimsical sack of dung.
In the meantime, I pray that someday Jeunet will make a genuinely great picture. It's in him. He's just got to do it.
"Micmacs" opens May 28 in Toronto and Vancouver via E1 Films. It has already been released in international territories outside of North America.