Monday, January 17, 2011

The Tropes of Jean-Pierre Jeunet

When I saw Jean-Pierre Jeunet's latest film, "Les Micmacs à tire-larigot," back in September, I had to double-check my ticket stub: I thought I'd wandered into the middle of a Jeunet retrospective.

"Micmacs"- the English-language title of the film - looks more than a little familiar. And it's not just because Jeunet has a distictive cinematographic style or that he uses the same actors repeatedly (Dominique Pinon, Yolande Moreau); it's that he is basically re-using his own plot devices.

Who can blame him? His last film, "Un Longue dimanche de fiançailles," was a disappointment of a book adaptation and did poorly at the box office. So, Jeunet decided to return to where he's done his best work: original screenplays. The only problem is that Jeunet seems to have constructed his script as if it were a Rube Goldberg machine made of "Amélie's" plot devices. (It's not the only debt the director owes to Goldberg in this film - his cast of misfits makes many such machines throughout the story.)

Among other plot points, "Amélie" and "Micmacs" share tragic childhoods (complete with one dead parent and one emotionally distant one apiece), sex shops, bored young people in dead-end jobs, getting back at nasty people and highly-choreographed mischief involving train stations.

The film even begins much in the same way as Amélie, with a quick montage explaining the main character's odd childhood predicament. Only this time, the intro is so short, we're not even quite sure what happened during it. It's also too short to make us properly care about the main character, Bazil.

In fact, Bazil seems to be more of a catalyst than a protagonist - he's merely the vehicle through which all of the other characters create the story. Bazil's brand of childhood tragedy begins when his father is killed while attempting to disarm a landmine in Afghanistan. Word reaches Bazil's mother, who goes into shock at the news and never recovers. Bazil, scrutinizing a package that arrives from the government, discovers photographs of the accident site, including a close-up of the culpable landmine. He commits the brand name to memory.

Fast-forward twenty years, and Bazil has grown up to be that trope of postmodern French cinema, the under-employed young French person. He's working in a video rental shop, whiling away the hours by watching old film noir, when a series of shady events leaves Bazil with a bullet in his brain.

He finds out the name of the bullet maker, and vows revenge. It is then that the "Micmacs" enter the picture, and they help Bazil in his quest for vegence. The Micmacs have a secret hideout in a junkyard, not unlike the Court of Miracles in Victor Hugo's "Notre Dame de Paris," and each of them has different and distinct talents. I'm not sure what prevented Jeunet from casting Audrey Tautou in this film, but it's clear that he tried his best to find her doppelgänger in Marie-Julie Baup:

The Micmacs help Bazil get revenge on the manufacturers of the landmine that killed his father and the bullet that nearly killed him. The two bedeviled executives, played by André Dussollier and Nicolas Marié, get the best scene in the film when they each confront the booby traps set by Bazil and his partners in mischief. It's the only truly funny moment in a film that tries to deliver, but fails miserably. The other scene of note owes a debt to "Pickpocket," with its shell game of suitcases in a train station.

Unfortunately, "Micmacs" has the quirk of "Delicatessen" and the tragic childhood of "Amélie," but this movie doesn't have enough original material to make viewers care about the film they're watching now.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The end of strikes, but the start of cuts

So, France's current spate of strikes is largely over. The country was in chaos for a few weeks (months?), but Sarko did what he had to do and made those French retirements slightly less cushy (am I the only one that prefers to shorten it to "'Kozy"? He's just so cute and little when he stands next to that Amazon wife of his.). But, I digress.

The big French news story on this side of the pond is that US universities are cutting their European language programs in an effort to trim budgets to administratively-acceptable levels. From what I've been reading, it seems as though French was at the top of the guillotine list.

SUNY Albany has suspended its French program, and Winona State University (Minn.) won't allow any new French majors into its program. The French program at the University of Tennessee at Martin is hanging by a thread.

Whatever happened to going to college a relatively ignorant young'in and graduating a "citizen of the world"?

Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Languages Association, told The New York Times that the cuts smacked of "Anglocentric perspective," meaning English somehow would be enough to understand the world. How far from reality these administrators are; it's truly laughable.

At least at SUNY Albany, the cuts are being made based on the number of students who have declared French as a primary major. Feal elaborated on this absurdity in The Chronicle of Higher Education last month.

I'll be honest here: I never realized how little I actually knew about the English language until I began learning French. Studying a foreign language opened up a whole new world to me - not just the Francophone world, but the world of grammar and style and nuance. In short, studying French made me want to be the person I am today: a writer; a wordsmith; a lover of the written and spoken word.

The level of ignorance that is being shown and perpetrated by the administration of these institutions is unconscionable. They are effectively choking their graduate programs off at the root: foreign languages are pre-requisities for many of the humanities at the graduate level. What will tomorrow's art history, vocal performance and - yes - English literature graduate students do when they can't even get into their desired program because they've been systematically prevented from learning?

To paraphrase Mr. Holland in Mr. Holland's Opus, "You'll be creating a generation of kids who don't know how to think."

And you can add "reason," "debate," and "understand" to that last one.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Apologies for the absence - let's just say I've been striking in solidarity. After all, France just wouldn't be France without its inordinately young retirement age and generous pensions. As much as the cultural inertia bothers me at times, if it means keeping some quintessentially French institutions intact, I'm all for it.

Friday, July 23, 2010

À moi, à moi la Liberté!

I have just found the most ambrosial yogurt on the planet. It's from Liberté, a company based in Québec. I've been running a yogurt experiment lately to try and find a brand I actually like and this one won the contest totally by accident.

I happened to look up above the Greek yogurt in the store to find, right at my eye level, the word "Méditerranée" and I was hooked. The company had me at their correct accent marks and the fact that they didn't Anglicize their company's name (ahem, Danone, I'm looking at YOU).

When I finally tasted the yogurt (I got wild blackberry) it was a truly orgasmic yogurt experience. Yes, it was THAT good. There are just good, old-fashioned ingredients in this stuff - milk, cream, fruit, etc. No nasty high-fructose corn syrup to speak of, unlike Yoplait's American entries. This yogurt is worth every one of its 14 grams of fat per serving. The company proclaims their product to be "a creamy sin without the guilt," and I heartily agree.

 Needless to say, I don't plan to share my Liberté - À moi la Liberté!

Photo: Copyright MLG.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Warmed-Up Leftovers, Anyone?

Hollywood, can we talk about this?

Now, I know that you've been playing catch-up with the French since they invented film and all and then went on to perfect it. But there's really no need to be so pathetic in the chase. We've come a long way from the whole Pépé le Moko/Algiers thing, where you had to change the ending because of the Hayes Code.

A spokesman for Jay Roach, who is directing Dinner For Schmucks, told The New York Times that "it's not a remake" but that it is "inspired" by the orginal 1998 French film Le dîner de cons (The English title was, oddly, The Dinner Game).

Then why does it have essentially the same title as the original and and the same premise? I'm sure they've ratcheted up the potty humor and the general jackassery (yes, that's a word - says me!), but if they're using the same plot, then it's a remake!

Variety notes that other American adaptations of Francis Veber's French farces haven't been as successful as the originals:

"American adaptations of Veber's works have been all over the map, from "The Birdcage" to "Father's Day" (when DreamWorks optioned "Dinner," it too was intended to star Robin Williams)."

So now that Hollywood has seemingly exhausted the supply of TV shows, remade movie musicals and old toys out of which to make movies, they are going back to the "original remake": the foreign language remake.

Do yourself a favor: see the original. I guarantee it'll be funnier in the end.


Friday, July 16, 2010

No Embouteillage Here!

A DIY clip from France on how to open a bottle of wine without a corkscrew has been making the rounds on Facebook and other platforms lately. Pat Kiernan, a morning news anchor in New York City, posted it on his blog, Pat's Papers, and it took off like, well, a busted champagne cork.

Here's the original video, methodically demonstrated by a well-dressed Frenchman:

Once he posted, people began asking Pat if he'd tried it, and so he did, with mixed results:

Here are some pointers, Pat:
  • First of all, you must be French for this process to be quick and painless. As a Canadian, you are a British subject, so obviously the French are not going to make anything unnecessarily easy for you. You know that!
  • Second,  though you got the premier prix memo, I think the plastic cork sabotaged you.
  • Third, and most importantly, as demonstrated in the French video, you must use a shoe that would be likely to be worn by Bomb Voyage.
P.S. - Pat, I'd like to know when the World Series of Pop Culture is coming back - I think next time, it should be a showdown between the smart asses who won that show and the geeks from Beat the Geeks. That would be entertaining.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Copy Editing FAIL

The person at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who is copy editing headlines and the one who's editing article copy don't seem to be communicating too well today.

I'm not sure what's going on here, but all I know is that, for once, it's not the writer's fault. The same mistake appears not only in the headline, but also in the image caption and in the RSS feed.

All I have to say is, "tsk tsk."

Despicable Me - Moi, moche et méchant

Despicable Me is one of the few movies I've ever described as "cute" in my entire life.

Because that's what it is; it's adorable. It's the kind of movie that makes you laugh until you're suddenly tearing up and cooing at the screen.

However, my initial impression was less favorable. I had seen a scant preview prior to another film and it came across as yet another gimmicky computer-animated 3-D movie riffing off of the success of The Incredibles (one of my all-time favorite animated movies). It was also unclear what the movie was even about - the promotions I'd seen made no connection between the quirky-looking minions and the movie's odd title.

The movie tells the story of Gru (Steve Carrell), a grouchy second-rate villain whose star is falling fast next to evil nerd extraordinaire Vector. In order to steal the trade secrets of his rival, Gru commandeers three disarmingly cute orphan girls to break into Vector's defenses.

The orphans, Margo, Edith and Agnes, find their way from Gru's ulterior plot into his heart, and the result is one of the best bedtime stories ever.

Of course, it wouldn't be an animated children's movie without its share of humor, which is mainly provided by the adorable minions - yellow jellybean-type guys that speak in gibberish - and Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), a British mad scientist of a sidekick. Miraculously, somehow the filmmakers managed to incorporate the standard fart and poo jokes in a fresh way. I'm thoroughly impressed.

The reason I mention the film on this blog is because it was directed by the Francophone team of Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin, who also voice most of the minions.

They do poke fun at overweight American tourists in the movie's opening scene, but are quick to poke fun back at themselves with a mime guarding the Eiffel Tower in a subsequent scene.

Overall, the filmmakers made good use of many of the tropes of both supervillain movies and computer-animated children's movies. It's one of the rare occasions on which I've disagreed with The New York Times' critics.

The film will be released in France in October under the title Moi, moche et méchant. No matter which language you decide to see it in, it's well worth it.

Photos: Courtesy