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Latest wacky masterpiece from Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Jun. 29, 2010
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Bazil, the mild-mannered protagonist of Micmacs, is the sort of film buff Quentin Tarantino would admire. Working the late shift at an all-night video store, he watches a Bogart-Bacall classic, The Big Sleep, reciting the dialogue by heart. When the film noir turns to a chase scene with gunplay, a similar event occurs on the street outside in a synchronicity that results in a bullet lodged in his brain.

It was not the first time Bazil’s life was changed by the deadly products of the armaments industry. When he was a child, his father, a French soldier, was killed by a land mine in the Martian landscape of the Western Sahara. Homeless and jobless after his discharge from the hospital, coincidence leads Bazil to the street where two of the world’s largest weapon-makers are located. The orchestral soundtrack swells, just like a Max Steiner score from golden-age Hollywood. An orchestra even appears briefly on the steps of the Art Deco edifice housing one of the companies. His imaginative landscape shaped by the movies, the apparition is a signal to Bazil. Like the hard-pressed heroes of old, he must embark on a vengeance quest against powerful villains who have caused so much harm.

Micmacs, the latest film by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, is in keeping with the retro-now fantasy worlds he created in the astonishing City of Lost Children and the delightful Amélie. The setting is a palimpsest where artifacts of the past bleed without comment into a present day with little cultural direction beyond the latest high-tech toys. Most of the Parisian apartments are furnished in the style of Europe between the world wars. The three-wheeled vehicles of postwar France share the streets with sleek, contemporary light rail. The good people of the cast look as if they shop in the funkiest resale shops on the continent.

Those good people are the merry band of misfits who accept Bazil as one of their own. They have established a subterranean society in the catacombs below a junkyard, a cluttered twilight filled with objects salvaged and recycled from what passes for civilization above. With a female contortionist who can curl up inside a refrigerator and a dwarf who once worked as a human cannonball, they resemble a happier version of the subculture in the 1930s film classic Freaks. References to other old movies abound. Before his adoption into the society of scavengers, Bazil, silently wandering the streets in shoes coming apart, recalls Charlie Chaplin’s tramp. The many pantomime scenes suggest the droll comedy of French director Jacques Tati. There is even a finger-poking nod to the Three Stooges and an uncomfortably quiet dinner table scene out of Citizen Kane.

The principal villains in Micmacs are a pair of rival armaments tycoons. De Fenouillet, an old-school plutocrat, keeps a collection of body parts from famous people, including the molar of Marilyn Monroe and the eye of Mussolini, under glass bell jars. The younger Marconi, part of the pseudo-hipster generation of Hollywood titans and venture philanthropists, lives in sleek plasma-screen luxury. The morality of their enterprises can be summed up by a corporate presentation whose speaker boasts of being “the world leader in the field of fragmentation bombs.” Kosovo, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, the diamond wars of Africa—de Fenouillet and Marconi have profited from them all. Bazil and his new friends are determined to bring them down.

The schemes they hatch are Rube Goldberg in their hilarious complexity as Bazil and company, a band of working-class outcasts, struggle against the cold rationality of giant corporations. The brilliance of Micmacs is that it turns a revolution of the little people into two hours of engaging entertainment.n


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