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