It takes a lot to make me sympathize with arms dealers, especially the ruthless and pure evil ones, but Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s relentlessly whimsical and quirky Micmacs very nearly succeeds. The movie opens promisingly enough, with a beautifully shot (by Tetsuo Nagata) prologue high in style and speed. As a child Bazil is effectively orphaned when his soldier father is killed in war and his mother driven mad by grief.
The bad luck continues for the adult Bazil (played by Dany Boon), when a stray bullet plants itself in his forehead in such a way as to be unremoveable. Bazil subsequently loses job and home and falls into a quaint period of homelessness that is a loving homage to Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, and acts, in retrospect, almost as an idyll before the high energy escapades to come.
The idyll comes to an end when Bazil is adopted into a motley “family” of strenuously eccentric misfits, a veritable Coney Island freak show of oddball skills and personalities who live peaceably in one of those hyper-elaborate Mad Max/Matrix/Terry Gilliamesque junkyard baroque / steampunk fantasias. It looks exactly as though it was created over many months of hard labor by an army of movie set dressers, and no doubt was.
Soon enough Bazil learns that the land mine that killed his father and the bullet that shattered his head were produced by rival arms manufacturers whose gothic headquarters—holy cinematic coincidence!—just happen to be located across the street from each other. Thus he and the rest of the Micmac family—having, apparently, absolutely nothing else to do with their days but invent wind-up Rube Goldberg toys from junkyard bits and pieces—embark on a shaggy dog campaign of revenge… and this time, it’s personal.
The French title, Micmacs à tire-larigot, translates to “non-stop shenanigans,” which sounds harmless enough, even promising, but somewhere in its tortuously antic middle, this movie begins to live up to its title all too well.
Because, of course, there are those awful arms dealers to fight. They are embodied by their respective CEOs, the grotesque Marconi and the dastardly Fenouillet, one so evil he collects body parts of dictators and the other so evil his living room is furnished with black leather modular sofas, shagreen cabinets and a clap-on/clap-off fireplace. And you should see the way they both eat prawns! (By the way, is Jeunet really suggesting that people who drive picturesquely battered and rattly vintage vehicles are inherently morally superior to those in sleek town cars?)
Very incidentally, there are also some fictional African strongmen arming up for a military coup, but all these purported villains are little more than strawmen, a thin pretense for the very long and contrived series of gadget-heavy and precision-timed stunts that, even in Jeunet’s over-the-top fanciful world, begins to beggar credulity and patience. It’s a very strange quandary when one begins to feel sorry for dealers in missiles, projectiles and victim-triggered explosive devices but that’s what nearly happens as the audience is likewise held hostage to the Micmacs’ tiresomely twee and seemingly endless capers.
If you are the kind of person who relishes being cornered by a troupe of zealous French mimes, you will adore Micmacs. Even if you’re not, if you loved Amelie, you may want to give Micmacs a chance, it being far closer to Amelie’s light tone than the dystopian visions of Delicatessan and City of Lost Children. And if you’re just a fan of Jeunet’s visual opulence or gorgeous cinematography or breathtakingly comprehensive post-production, you will want to go. Just be prepared to succumb to Micmac’s brutal determination to charm and amuse. You may leave the theater as I did, begging for mercy.