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.