Hall of Greats: Micmacs
Micmacs (2010) centers around Bazil (Danny Boon), a cinema lover and video store clerk left without a father by a mine in Africa. One night, a shootout goes down outside Bazil’s video store and a stray bullet gets lodged in his forehead. The doctors flip a coin and decide to leave the bullet in, though at any moment Bazil could suddenly die from the bullet. Bazil is released from the hospital and finds himself homeless and jobless, with all of his possessions stolen during his time away. He spends several weeks living on the streets, making money through small street performances, until his runs into a man named Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who brings Bazil to a family that lives in a junkyard and makes useful things out of trash and scrap. Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier) is a contortionist, Remington (Omar Sy) still utilizes his ethnographer roots and speaks almost exclusively in old sayings, Calculette (Marie-Julie Baup) can look at any person or object and instantly determine the dimensions, Fracasse (Dominique Pinon) is a human cannonball, Petit Pierre (Michel Cremades) makes moving sculptures and does not talk, and Mama Chow (Yolanda Moreau) cooks and looks after everyone in the family.
During a daily round of junk collection, Bazil stumbles upon two buildings across the street from each other. One is responsible for the bullet lodged in his brain, and the other manufactured the land mine that killed his father. After attempting to enter each establishment and encountering the owners of the companies, Nicolas Thibault De Fenouillet (Andre Dussolier) and Francois Marconi (Nicolas Marie), Bazil decides that he must take down the two superpowers and stop them from continuing to fund the deaths of millions. Naturally, he intends to pit them against each other. With the help of his new family, he sets into motion a hugely elaborate scheme to dethrone Nicolas and Francois.
Realistically, Micmacs deals with the extremely serious themes of arms dealing and dirty wars. The film does not dance around the fact that Nicolas and Nicolas are the villains of the story. Despite this, Micmacs retains a fairly whimsical, bubbly tone that is not unlike Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s earlier film Amelie. Like that film, Micmacs is shot with very warm colors and energetic editing. Jeuent’s style is distinctive and unlike anyone else working today, giving his film a lightness that simultaneously does not disregard the seriousness of the subject matter at hand. Even so, it has no problem with poking fun at these issues: after Bazil is shot, the doctors flip a coin to determine whether they should attempt to remove the bullet from Bazil’s brain, even making a couple of wry jokes at the expense of their patient. A homeless Bazil is invited to a soup kitchen of sorts, but is too embarrassed to be homeless and instead pretends that he needs a taxi. Of course, he does not, and cannot even afford the taxi, so he takes to trying to hide behind it. It’s a tragically goofy scene. Francois and Nicolas are almost comically evil in their actions, hobbies (one of them collects the body parts of famous people from history), and absurd outbursts of extreme anger. If either one of them had a handlebar mustache, he would undoubtedly be twirling it as hard as possible.
“Micmacs à tire-larigot”, the film’s full French title, translates literally to “Non-stop shenanigans”. The title is earned in full during the scene in which Bazil meets his adoptive family. They each are introduced into the story via their curious talents, and the scenes that take place in the home thereafter are largely comprised of the family members each fulfilling their archetypal roles, bickering affectionately, and plotting how to take down Nicolas and Francois. Once the family sets their plan into motion to dethrone the arms dealers, it erupts into an incredibly satisfying Ocean’s 11-esque, hilariously complex scheme that comprises countless steps and phases. The inevitable relationship that develops between Bazil and Elastic Girl is nothing short of adorable, starting with arguments and progressing gradually through flirtatiousness.
Supplemental to this whole airy, bright style are the visual and audio elements of the film. Micmacs is shot with almost exclusively warm filters. Everything is bright and happy visually, and every scene seems to just glow. The attention to detail in Jeunet’s mise-en-scene is stunning, and each of the several times I have seen the film has yielded another small detail in the frame that I had never noticed before. Little stylistic touches (such as a security camera that literally performs a double-take, or small picture-in-picture interpretations of Bazil’s mental processes) are everywhere. Any director that has such an attentive eye when it comes to setting up his shot deserves no less than the highest of praise. The bright style that is established so strongly in the visual style of the film goes hand-in-hand with the soundtrack by Raphael Beau. Beau, a schoolteacher who prior to this film had no experience with scoring, delivers a stunningly delightful soundtrack comprised of piano, accordion, and a collection of improvised percussion sounds. It’s really, really good, and I’ve had “Last Flight” as my ringtone for almost a full year now.
One of the things Micmacs does best is play with audience expectations. One of the movie’s many great scenes involves a montage of the two villains eating dinner in their respective houses. Coincidentally, they are each dining on shrimp. While Francois, who at this point in the film has worked himself into an almost perpetual temper, viciously shells his food before chomping down on it, Nicolas carefully removes the shells on his before placing it onto his plate. The camera cuts between Nicolas and his wife looking at each other, and their scene is a bit more relaxed than that of Francois. The scene culminates with Nicolas picking up his fork, holding it above his carefully-arranged shrimp on his plate…and then spearing no fewer than five or six on the fork and stuffing all of them into his mouth at once. Scenes play out differently than one would expect, though the end result is considerably more satisfying than the original expectation.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s love for cinema shines through in Micmacs. At the start of the film, an adult Bazil works at a video store and is spending his evening watching The Big Sleep and reciting the dialogue along with the characters. Following the bullet to the head, Bazil stumbles back into the store and collapses, as the camera moves towards and into the television, which flashes “The End” and fades into a black-and-white opening credits sequence which, combined with the fanfare that plays during the sequence, is distinctly 40s in style. Jeunet has also cited films such as Toy Story and other Disney films as inspiration for his own. Robert De Niro (played by a French actor here) is literally a character in the film for about twenty seconds, reciting the famous Travis Bickle line, “you talkin’ to me?”, and a scene toward the end of the film is a direct homage to Mission: Impossible. Delightfully, Micmacs contains some elements of the silent film. Though there is plenty of wonderful dialogue, the actors are all magnificently expressive physically, with exaggerated facial and body expressions. Tight close-ups of the actors’ faces are commonplace in the film as well, highlighting the emphasis on physical comedy. Cinemaphiles will find themselves in heaven here.
Micmacs is a non-stop parade of visual and aural delights, a treasure trove of purely euphoric elements. There’s just so much to love about this film; there is truly nothing else remotely like it, and it’s impossible not to smile through the whole thing. The cast is immensely lovable and the whole film feels like an intricate work of art. This is French filmmaking at its very best, and a completely delightful piece of happiness that should not be skipped.