Close readers of Movie Smackdown (and especially close readers of my own personal Movie Smackdowns) might recall that 2001’s “Amélie” topped my list of this past decade’s favorite films. Four years after, filmmaker Jean- ierre Jeunet followed up that (mostly) undisputed masterpiece with “A Very Long Engagement,” and “Micmacs” came along just five years later. An intensely visual director, Jeunet’s imagery remains consistently fresh and breathtakingly original, his fabulous fabulist’s palette uniquely his. Jeunet films have the urgency and half-remembered quality of dreams as they unfold. These tales exist in a rarefied and occasionally twee universe, timeless and with a winsome sense of fun and tricked-out grown-up child’s play even when the underlying subject matter gets serious. The subject at hand is war, and let’s just state the obvious up front – Jeunet’s against it. Which film makes his most compelling case?
At the gooey center of this box of arsenic-laced chocolates, “Micmacs” is little more than an exponentially expanding Rube Goldberg contraption run by a subterranean freak-show taking clear-eyed aim at warmongering. Two completely amoral arms merchants, soulless profiteers and manufacturers of the world’s deadliest weapons, are mercilessly and deservedly targeted by the unlikeliest and lowliest of foes. This revenge-fueled fantasy Mission Impossible is made implausibly possible by the most ragtag bunch of society’s misfits and castaways. This earnest and ersatz underground family contains a romantically awkward lady contortionist, a wordless inventor of junk-art automatons, a Guinness-records-obsessed human cannonball, a calculator in rapturous girl form, a fast-talking tongue-twisted nonsense-spewing dispenser of fortune cookie wisdom and hackneyed saws, and a devilishly clever old-master thief. When they adopt hapless ex-video-store clerk and stray-bullet survivor Bazil (Dany Boon), he leads them in a quirky quest to avenge his father’s landmine death and his own accidental near-death.
The Defending Champion
The always-lovely Audrey Tautou plays Mathilde, a young woman whose soldier fiancé Manech has disappeared from the trenches of the First World War, one of five unfortunate French soldiers banished to No Man’s Land after a Court Martial. Indomitably cheerful and unquenchably optimistic, polio-stricken Mathilde searches everywhere for clues, refusing to believe her beloved has died in spite of all evidence. Her hope-filled adventures lead her (and us) on a magical mystery tour of the cruel absurdity of war and the restorative power of enduring love.
The delights are many in both films; invention and making something of less than nothing is a favorite Jeunet parlor trick. The perhaps too-whimsical band of “Micmacs” imagineers fights the very worst bad guys with every conceivable weapon of construction; so much cleverness comes at a cost. We hardly get to know any of the semi-reluctant geniuses at work, and because of that, we don’t care much what happens to them. We hear tiny slivers of back-story and we watch as their relationships spin in dizzy concentric circles of impossibly good will. When a romance blossoms, it’s like watching a flower spring from the crack in a sidewalk.
The inherent anti-war and genocide French leftie politics ring impeccably true for a tie-dyed-in-the- ixties-wool peacenik like myself, but I suspect some harder heads might take issue with the dubious solution offered up so cannily — a dexterous army of oddballs nimbly foiling a few rival arms manufacturers might arguably seem not much more than a piffle in the cold light of day.
The heart of “A Very Long Engagement” beats a bit stronger and truer. Here, an individual strives against all odds not for revenge but for answers, for an unlikely happy ending to a tragic story. While politics are not quite the entire target of the exercise, the higher powers take more than their deserved lumps in passing, and war is revealed for the true madness it is. The film is based on Sébastien Japrisot’s novel, and as such, it avoids the Jeunet twin traps of antic storytelling and an overcrowded stew of unconventional eccentrics. The war sequences are absolutely harrowing and eloquent, simultaneously beautiful and horrible, and Jeunet indulges himself and us with some of Mathilde’s fantasies as well. It’s a glorious piece of work; the cinematography is stunning, the mystery unfolds gradually enough to keep us enthralled, and the romance works well.
Both Bazil and Mathilde are damaged goods; Bazil suffers occasional seizures from the bullet still lodged in his cranium, and Mathilde struggles to walk with her crippled leg. Neither is undone by their infirmities however; Mathilde travels all over on her own power and grace while Bazil uses every ounce of brain cell still firing. There’s a lesson afoot, and while it’s none too subtle, it works its magic.
Neither film come close to the confectionary perfection that is “Amélie,” but both are well worth your attention. Sadly, it seems it’s always a good time to contemplate the madness of war. No matter what we do, we seem to always be embroiled in at least a few. It’s crucial for filmmakers and for filmgoers to keep their anti-war fires burning, their pacifistic leanings stoked and refreshed. Precious little wisdom on the subject comes from politics; the world of art does that work for us all. They’re both fine explorations of anti-war machine sentiment, but I think “A Very Long Engagement” might do it a little bit better. Couched in recent history and bathed in nostalgia for a more innocent time, the lessons are quieter and perhaps more deeply felt.
“Micmacs” undergrounders exist in a universe parallel to the one that wraps up the film; it’s almost impossible to imagine these characters existing in a youtube-dominated world. Watch them both. And do everything you can to help stop the madness. Cough. Afghanistan. Iran. Cough. “A Very Long Engagement” indeed.