The films of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet are so rabidly inventive that, if you waltz into them unawares, you’re likely to feel poleaxed. He’s the French equivalent of Terry Gilliam, another filmmaker who always has to have eight things happening on the screen simultaneously – and the more bizarre the better.
Jeunet’s new film, “Micmacs,” issues from the same perfervid mindscape that gave us “Amélie,” “A Very Long Engagement,” and (as codirector with Marc Caro), “Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children.” It’s a mindscape I’m of two minds about: I love all that invention but after a while it wears me down. Nonstop eccentricity takes its toll. Jeunet’s movies make me long for a little normality.
Up until about the halfway point “Micmacs” wrung me out, but then it started to grow on me. Or maybe it’s just that I adapted to the freneticism and decided, as a survival tactic, to go with the flow. Unlike most of Jeunet’s other films, “Micmacs” has a cast of characters that is altogether appropriate to its helter-skelter stylistics.
Its central hero is Bazil (the popular French comic Dany Boon), who is hit in the head by a stray bullet while working the night shift in a video store while he is watching Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep.” (By the way, what is it about the French and Bogart? Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s “Breathless,” which is currently being given a theatrical revival, was also infatuated, and just about every French film noir is Bogart-haunted.)
With the bullet still lodged in his brain because doctors are afraid to operate, Bazil, who could keel over at any moment, retreats to a cardboard shantytown beside the Seine and teams with a ragtag bunch of like-minded misfits presided over by the dotingly off-center Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau, who was so extraordinary last year as the unbalanced artist in “Séraphine”). Ex-con Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle) is a master lock-picker; the charmingly dweeby Calculator (Marie-Julie Baup) is a number-crunching whiz; Buster (scrunched-face Dominique Pinon) is like a one-man Guinness Book of World Records; Remington (Omar Sy) is named for his beloved typewriter. My favorite is Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier), who can literally bend herself into a pretzel. Unless I’m missing something, Ferrier appears to be performing all her own pretzel-bending. She’s so nimble she could check herself into her own carry-on luggage.
The mite of seriousness in this scenario is that Bazil, who had been orphaned as a boy when his father was killed by a roadside bomb, devises a way with his newfound buddies to strike back at the two leading French weapons manufacturers. (One of them, played by André Dussollier, has an aggrieved hauteur.) The team’s protracted payback is marvelously ingenious. It’s like watching the A-Team as re-imagined by Rube Goldberg, with a little Jacques Tati and Lewis Carroll thrown in.
The best part is that, amid all the hubbub, Jeunet, improbably and inevitably, draws out a love story between Bazil and Elastic Girl. Without it, “Micmacs” would have imploded. The romance, which is funny and sexy at the same time, anchors the shenanigans. Because she has a genius for contortionary calisthenics, Elastic Girl frets that Bazil will find her unfeminine. It’s an immensely satisfying moment when he finally realizes otherwise. Smart man. Grade: B+ (Rated R for some sexuality and brief violence.)
More Monitor movie reviews: