non-stop shenanigans, that's what the title of jean-pierre jeunet's latest cinematic carnival ride translates to. micmacs à tire-larigot (2009) falls a little short of the promise of its name but is worthwhile, nonetheless. ostensibly a satire of the world arms trade, it actually functions much better when treading the more sentimental ground familiar to followers of jeunet's particular brand of whimsy.
it tells the story of bazil, orphaned as a boy when a landmine took his father and then injured by a stray bullet himself during a freak accident. the latest chain of unfortunate circumstances causes him to lose his home and his job and leaves him to fend for himself on the streets of paris. it's not long before savvy ex-con/salvage man "slammer" takes him under his wing, and underground, and introduces him to his new family.
the labyrinthine junkyard is home to a motley band of misfits and geniuses. working amidst society's detritus, themselves cast off, they take fragments of daily life that others consider no longer fit and make magic out of them. populated by the aforementioned ex-con and guillotine defier, a mother who lost her daughters to a house of mirrors, a lady contortionist, the deceptively strong automaton builder "little pete", a lovely human calculator, a writer who speaks in (practically) nothing but hackneyed cliches and a retired human cannonball with more plates and screws than evel knievel (played by jeunet stalwart dominique pinon), this subterranean cathedral of junk (what's up, austin?) becomes headquarters for an escalating war of rube goldbergian proportions against the munitions manufacturers responsible for the wicked turns in bazil's life.
of course, the warmongers get theirs. you would expect no less. i think, though, that as targets of this group's ragtag machinations, the arms manufacturers are almost incidental. you could have put any deserving party under the cage at the end.
it would have been just as satisfying had it been morning radio personalities. the fun is in watching the machine work. you were never invested in the mouse, were you? the mouse never did anything to you. it certainly was fun, though, to see the little man on the diving board do that flip. warmongers, mouse - what's the difference?
two things may make a difference, in this case.
one - family
this is where the film squanders its opportunities the most, i think. so much more could have been done in developing these characters and emphasizing how important it is to be needed by, and to count on, someone. micmacs, jeunet's entire body of work, in fact, intimates that our prosperity and our very survival depends on these connections, forged of blood, necessity or blind luck. it then speeds through the development of these relationships in a manner that leaves us with an outline, rather than a document, of these tenuous bonds. we're supposed to just take it on faith? a little lazy, i think. yes, there is a certain shorthand accepted in cinema but here it's not quite enough to completely sell the idea. i want it to work so i give it leeway. a less sympathetic audience might not. warmongers and their just desserts occupy the tertiary spot here. the value of the family as support system is actually a more important theme to this film and this filmmaker. unfortunately, it gets the short shrift a little bit. how important a notion it is to you will most likely dictate how much you are pulling for bazil and his new family or how much you are just watching the machine.
two - the machine
there is nothing more important going on here than the idea of the ramshackle contraption, both without and within. you take any number of disparate elements, give them a new context, a new purpose, introduce any number of variables, work out the best way to achieve your desired result and throw the switch. good luck with that. good luck with your game, your movie, your heart, your life, your universe. in the best of all possible worlds (or at least jeunet's), the bad guys lose and you get the girl contortionist.
the most thoughtful and provocative part of jeunet's contraption is the implication that we build our own machines as miniature approximations of the one we occupy in some effort to exert a modicum of control (laughable in the face of random chance) and make ourselves feel better about the fact that we are just variables ourselves, careening around crazily, crashing into others as hapless as we are. we are the mouse, the man on the diving board. we are someone else's cannon fodder.
ultimately, i can only hope that whoever designed this crazy contraption we are making our way through is as benevolent as the denizens of this parisian junkyard. i hope somewhere underground a human cannonball, a strongman puppeteer and a girl contortionist are working on the details, and the devil in them, on my behalf.