Ah, France! Land of quaint cafes, tinted-postcard views, wide-eyed waifs and all the other delights Jean-Pierre Jeunet fetishized in Amelie, his 2001 art-house hit.
Also, the country is the world's fourth-largest weapons exporter.
Improbably but satisfyingly, those two Frances are united in Jeunet's latest movie, the obscurely titled Micmacs. (That's short for Micmacs a tire-larigot, which could be translated as "lots of trickery.") The result is an ingenious romp whose whimsy cloaks a political edge.
The story's setup is involved, but briskly told: In 1979, a French soldier is killed while attempting to disarm a land mine in north Africa. Thirty years later, the dead man's son is working in a video store when gunfire erupts outside, and a stray bullet enters his brain. Bazil (Dany Boon) doesn't die, but the slug can't be removed, and any internal shift could end his life.
Jobless after his hospital stint, Bazil falls in with a group of eccentrics who live in a jury-rigged fortress deep in some suburban junkyard. Soon the former vid-store clerk finds a purpose for his precarious existence: Gazing at a nearby building, Bazil spies the corporate logo from the mine that killed his father. Across the street, he sees the emblem from the bullet in his head. He's stumbled upon the headquarters of two large armaments manufacturers, bitter corporate rivals glaring at each other across the DMZ of a busy street. (The location was inspired by the Paris suburb where Jeunet edited his The City of Lost Children in a building adjacent to a warplane factory.)
Bazil decides to pit the two companies against each other, devising an elaborate scheme that deploys the unusual skills of his new pals. They include Slammer, a veteran lock-picker; Calculator, a math savant; Elastic Girl, who's capable of incredible twists and nearly impervious to cold; Tiny Pete, an inventor with a flair for Rube Goldberg contraptions; Remington, a typewriter-using anthropologist who speaks entirely in cliches; and human cannonball Buster. (The last is played by squashed-face Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon.)
Bazil's crew is half sideshow troupe, half superhero team, and its adversaries are no less singular. The CEO of one munitions firm collects the body parts of historical figures, and is currently negotiating for Mussolini's eye. The other obsessively quizzes his young son about the destructive power of his company's bombs.
What Bazil and his cohorts have planned is not literally explosive. They are, in a sense, making a movie about the arms industry, which means their fictional undertaking parallels Jeunet's real one. But that's hardly the film's only in-joke; Micmacs is stuffed with movie-movie buffoonery. The director has said he was inspired by Mission: Impossible and Toy Story, and the silent-comedy bits evoke Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton. Bazil is watching The Big Sleep when he's shot, and that movie's soundtrack sticks in his -- and the film's -- brain.
Like The Big Sleep, Micmacs tells a tangled story that may be just too much for some viewers. But the film moves nimbly, has an exuberant sense of style and is leavened by comic asides, many of them strictly visual. (The movie would be plenty of fun even without the subtitles.)
And taking on munitions merchants gives Jeunet -- and his characters -- a fresh sense of purpose. It makes for a welcome contrast to the director's earlier works, with their suffocating insistence on the power of Fate. Micmacs won't vanquish the white-collar bombardiers, but it strafes them with wit and spirit. (Recommended)