Friday, May 28, 2010

Reverend's Reviews: French Tickler

It's been six long years since the offbeat but brilliant auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet made his last movie, the romantic epic A Very Long Engagement. Indeed, Jeunet has only made five films in the 20 years since he burst onto the international scene with the morbid but funny Delicatessen.

Disappointed by his one Hollywood experience as director of 1997's Alien: Resurrection, Jeunet returned to France and made the charming Amélie (2001). He's been dormant since 2004, but is about to make another big splash with the wonderful Micmacs. It is being released by Sony Pictures Classics this Friday in New York, on June 4 in Los Angeles, and across the country this summer.

A comedy told with Jeunet's typical visual and musical ingenuity, Micmacs follows the unusual plight of Bazil (Dany Boon, alternately amusing and moving). His father was killed when Bazil was a boy while clearing land mines in the Moroccan desert. As an adult, Bazil is struck by a stray bullet that ends up lodged in his brain. He loses his job as a video clerk due to his lengthy hospitalization and ends up homeless. If that wasn't enough, Bazil has to live with the knowledge that his life could end instantly if the bullet should move any further.

He is taken in by a kindly if odd band of junk collectors. Shortly after, Bazil recognizes the logos of two weapons manufacturers responsible for the mine that killed his father and the bullet in his brain. With the aid of his talented new junkyard friends — who include a contortionist, a human calculator, a creator of automated sculptures and a gourmet chef — Bazil pits the two weapon-makers against one another in his sophisticated, escalating plan for revenge.

Generally cartoonish in style (for example, industrial buildings explode at the height of the workday and the employees walk away, smoky but uninjured), Micmacs nonetheless has some deadly serious points to make. War profiteering, the ready availability of weapons of mass destruction and the damage caused to innocent people by land mines are a few of Jeunet's significant concerns, but he never gets preachy. Jeunet keeps throwing so many sight gags, character insights (as Elastic Girl, the contortionist, tells the initially critical but eventually smitten Bazil: "I'm not twisted; I'm a sensitive soul in a flexible body") and literary references at the audience that there's no opportunity to sermonize. There is one awkward gay reference/would-be joke on Bazil's part that, rather than offend, simply falls flat.

It's a fully apparent testament to Jeunet's talent in Micmacs that his busy, complex style doesn't suffer at all in the hands of a new director of photography, Tetsuo Nagata (past DPs on the director's films have included Darius Khondji and Bruno Delbonnel). The movie's supporting cast — which includes Yolande Moreau, who gave an award-winning performance in last year's Séraphine — is also completely in thrall to Jeunet's vision. In short, I love Micmacs! It's more ingenious, more cinematic and more just plain fun than any summer blockbuster you'll see!

Also accomplished and French but very different tonally from Micmacs is the current drama The Father of My Children (Le Pere de Mes Enfants). Mia Hansen-Løve's second film as a director won the "Un Certain Regard" Special Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and gained her a spot on Variety's recent "10 Directors to Watch" list.

Inspired by an encounter Hansen-Løve had with a prospective producer who suddenly committed suicide, The Father of My Children similarly weaves its tragic but ultimately hopeful story around the self-inflicted death of a deep-in-debt independent filmmaker and its effect on his wife and daughters.

Louis-Do De Lencquesaing is excellent as the filmmaker, Gregoire, and subtly conveys the man's increasing despondency. While his act of suicide is still shocking, the script provides enough foreshadowing (such as when Gregoire's assistant exclaims in reference to her demanding job, "I kill myself here") that it can't be called a surprise.

By the climactic point when Gregoire's wife, Sylvia (well-played by the lovely Chiara Caselli, who had roles in the gay-interest films My Own Private Idaho and Ripley's Game), and their daughters leave to start a new life to the sunny voice of Doris Day singing "Que Sera Sera," viewers will have been on a discomfiting but hopefully inspiring journey. As one character states, reflecting on his first film, "If I could redo it today, I'd do it much better." We can all say the same of our lives, which are too precious to take lightly.

Reverend's Ratings: Micmacs: A-, The Father of My Children: B

UPDATE: Micmacs is now available on DVD and Blu-ray and The Father of My Children is now available on DVD from

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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