Dominique Pinon prepares to blast off in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Micmacs

I promised something a bit more highbrow for this week’s column, and I’m a man of my word: though Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s new film, Micmacs (currently screening at the Shattuck Cinemas) won’t be mistaken for a Merchant-Ivory production or an Alain Resnais head-scratcher, it features neither trolls nor Martians. As such, it’s serious — albeit mischievous — art.

Dany Boon stars as Bazil, a French everyman who (in the film’s masterful opening sequence) loses his father to an anti-personnel mine in the Western Sahara. Years later, Dany’s late night video store shift (which seems to involve naught but eating candy and watching Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep) ends abruptly when a criminal’s stray bullet finds its way into his forehead.

After a lengthy hospital sojourn in which a surgeon flips a coin to determine whether the bullet stays or goes (it stays), Bazil finds himself both homeless and unemployed. Tipped off to the existence of an encampment at a nearby scrap-yard, he is soon adopted by the commune’s quirky crew of outcasts: cook and den mother Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau), math whiz Calculator (Marie-Julie Baup), wordsmith Remington (Omar Sy), contortionist Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier), human cannonball Buster (Dominique Pinon), professional thief and guillotine survivor Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle) and diminutive inventor Little Pierre (Michel Cremades).

When Bazil discovers that the armaments companies responsible for both his father’s death and his own misfortune carry out their trade on opposite sides of a nearby street, he and his friends plot revenge. In best Topkapi fashion, they insinuate their way into the belly of the beast, turn the company chairmen (Andre Dussolier and Nicolas Marie) against each other, and give them a taste of the deadly gruel they’ve been serving for decades to their Middle Eastern and African customers.

Despite its deadly serious denouement, in which the horrors of ‘extraordinary rendition’ are recreated to darkly comedic effect, Micmacs also has its share (though by no means an overabundance) of Amelie-style whimsy. (The crowd-pleasing Amelie was directed by Jeunet.) Jeunet is, as usual, a visually audacious director unafraid to acknowledge his influences: in addition to the excerpts from The Big Sleep and the use of numerous Max Steiner cues throughout the film’s score, there are numerous references to popular films of the past, including Marcel Carne’s Le jour se leve, Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, Buster Keaton’s The General, and Jacques Tati’s Play Time.

This is, at heart, a big-budget popcorn movie made by a filmmaker eager to reach as wide an audience as possible. However, the film’s anti-war thesis — as well as its subtitles — probably won’t sell many tickets outside the confines of America’s major cities, but Micmacs (which, according to Jeunet, means ‘shenanigans’) is just as much a Gallic summer crowd-pleaser as (par exemple) a Luc Besson action flick. And nary a troll in sight.

John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...