At his most successful, Jean-Pierre Jeunet has managed to create films which combine a mainstream approach to storytelling with an artist’s attention to image. Some would argue that “Delicatessen” is Jeunet’s strongest film so far—much darker than “Amélie,” and it has achieved a cult status. But it was “Amélie” that gained the biggest audiences: whereas “Delicatessen” was set in a dystopia, “Amélie” portrayed a Paris that was pleasurably unrealistic; while characters in Delicatessen were truly bizarre, characters in “Amélie” were more mildly quirky in a way that people were better able to identify with.
In “Micmacs,” his most recent film, Jeunet has returned to the cast of misfits more typical of his early work—”Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children.” Rather than being set in a fantasy-world, the film is set in present-day Paris, which it portrays rather magically in a way that is reminiscent of “Amélie,” though not as effective. As in all of Jeunet’s films, there is an artistic sensibility to the imagery. While “Amélie” also achieved a subtle symbolism, however, “Micmacs” is embarrassingly clumsy in its references. Worst of all are the coy cameos made by the film’s poster: least obtrusive is the film’s DVD cover which can be seen in the shop where Bazil works; the film’s poster makes several obvious appearances on roadside billboards. Rather than being the clever detail to be spotted by attentive audience members, this shameless self-referencing acts as a distraction, reminding the audience that they are watching a film.
Jeunet also makes less obvious references to his past films in “Micmacs.” A devotee of “Amélie” might be reminded of this film when Lola (herself looking like a vampish version of Amélie) says ‘aites un effort’ (‘Try harder!’) when Bazil fails to make the correct choice between two hands she is holding out to him, one of which hides an object which will help him on his quest. Later in the film Bazil stands atop an apartment building, lowering a microphone down different chimneys in an effort to eavesdrop on an arms dealer. In one of the apartments there is a musical duet taking place between a woman playing a cello and a man playing a saw. This is a quotation of one of the most famous images from “Delicatessen,” which Jeunet makes all the more direct by casting the same actor, Dominique Pinon, in the role of the saw player. The problem is, in “Micmacs” Dominique Pinon is cast as a member of Bazil’s band of misfits, so his brief reprise of the earlier role from “Delicatessen” has no logical justification in the story, only an artistic logic which sits awkwardly in an otherwise mainstream film.
The other difficulty I have with this film is in its attitude toward minorities and to other cultures. One of the few reviewers who criticised “Amélie” was Serge Kaganski who said that Jeunet portrayed a Paris that had been ‘carefully cleansed of its ethnic diversity’, and accused him of having ‘a particularly reactionary and right-wing view of the world, to put it politely.’ It is certainly strange that a film set in Montmartre in 1997 should feature only two actors of North African background, both of whom were given French names in the film as if to erase their difference. In Micmacs, it initially seems that Jeunet has taken steps to correct his earlier omission: the film features six black characters, half of whom are portrayed sympathetically. There are two minor characters who are Somalian immigrants, and although their papers are in order, they are vulnerable to blackmail in the film: their portrayal is sympathetic, but nonetheless casts Africans in the role of victims. The major black character in the film is Remington, a member of the film’s main band of misfits. His role ought to be an empowering one, as he is portrayed as highly educated and articulate. Although he also comes across as eccentric, this is a characteristic that is shared by every member of the group of social outcasts. Yet every other member of the group has the opportunity to put their special skills to use in Bazil’s schemes. Remington, meanwhile, is never called on for his specialist knowledge; his convoluted manner of speech (more poetic than academic) is seen as a hindrance to his ability to fulfill his task of impersonating different black people. This task of impersonation perpetually brings the focus back to Remington’s ethnic origins: he is helpful not for his individual qualities but simply because he is black. Moreover, the roles he takes on constitute two extremes of negative stereotyping of the Other: the black man as harmless buffoon or heartless thug. In the harmless role, Remington dons traditional African robes and pretends to be a hawker selling trinkets at the airport. More frequently, he impersonates the violent agents of an African dictatorship. The real agents are the film’s three unsympathetic black characters, and their portrayal is just as problematic.
Audiences of mainstream cinema will be used to seeing black people cast in the role of gangsters, but I would argue that Jeunet takes this negative stereotype a step further. When the agents break into the arms manufacturer’s apartment to exact revenge for a perceived betrayal, the scene plays out as the white man’s worst nightmare: the return of the repressed from the colonial past. As the three men bind and gag the white arms manufacturer and play a cruel game of Russian roulette with him, the audience is made to feel the arms manufacturer’s terror, and come quite close to sympathy for him, even though he is just as heartless as the agents. Moreover, the agents do not even succeed in exacting their revenge: the head of a rival company comes to the rescue, summarily shooting all three agents dead. Although the film does present the possibility that the company head might take advantage of the situation to eliminate his rival (who he mistakenly believes to have sabotaged his factory), the two white businessmen are ultimately able to resolve the misunderstanding through language; the African agents, by contrast, come across as implacably violent and impossible to reason with.
Towards the end of the film, it looks as though Jeunet is going to make a political statement about the losses suffered in war by people of other cultures. The audience is led to believe that the two arms manufacturers are sent to Afghanistan where they are confronted by women who have lost children in war. The Afghani women stare wordlessly at the two men, and it seems that they are going to watch in silence as Europeans are blown apart by their own weapons. Finally, though, Afghanistan is revealed to be an elaborately staged illusion set in Paris, and the Afghani women are revealed as the band of French misfits in disguise. I felt somewhat disturbed that the film seemed to draw attention to the many real victims of war, only to use them as part of Bazil’s ploy to exact revenge for his own personal grudge against the weapons manufacturers. Furthermore, the nature of this revenge once again sets up an unpleasant contrast between the Other, who demands brutal death, and the European, who takes a more cerebral revenge through technology, laughter and law: the arms manufacturers are ruined when a video of their desperate confessions is broadcast on YouTube.
Jeunet’s “Amélie” was given a large part of the credit for the renewal that took place in the French film industry in 2001, and for reinvigorating French cinema’s reputation. Jeunet’s films testify to the director’s inventiveness, aesthetic sensibility, and refreshing sense of wonderment towards everyday life. It is disappointing, then, that Jeunet can simultaneously demonstrate such old-fashioned bemusement when faced with the Other, who is seen as impenetrable and ridiculous, if not downright terrifying.