Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs shows us that a very distinct style can sometimes be a problem
An artist makes a mark because of the things that are unique to him (Amelie), and yet, when these traits become too unique, we move on (Micmacs).
Micmacs (2009) is directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director best known for Delicatessen and Amélie – and if you did not know, going in, that this was his work, you would know in the first five minutes. Look at the shot where a woman receives news that her husband has died in the Western Sahara while attempting to defuse a landmine. As the camera pulls back and she comes into view, she’s frozen. She could be a still-life painting – her left hand holding the telephone receiver, her right hand covering her open mouth, her sorrowful eyes staring into space. Most distinctive of all is her whimper. The sound is that of a muffled cuckoo clock going off at the hour. Or maybe she’s silent and there really is a muffled cuckoo clock going off at the hour.
If you thought this was whimsical, wait till you get to the scene — a few minutes later on screen, a few decades later in the time-frame of the story — where this woman’s 30-something son, Bazil, is introduced. He’s watching The Big Sleep on TV, mouthing the lines as the characters on screen say them. (Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall have been dubbed into French, and this adds its own layer of whimsy!) The film cuts from Bogart’s car to a car on the streets outside Bazil’s office. A motorbike follows. There’s a shootout, and when Bazil foolishly steps out to investigate the noise, a stray bullet lodges itself in his head. A tragedy? No. Again, like the scene with the whimpering mother, the quirky stylisation tweaks the tone. Bazil falls as Bogart and Bacall continue to converse inside his television set.
Bazil doesn’t die, but that story – which includes a human cannonball and a contortionist fond of hiding in refrigerators – can wait. The story of Jeunet, post Amélie, is more interesting. In approximate figures, Amélie (2001) made a worldwide gross of $170 million on a $10 million production budget. Now, compare the box office performance of Jeunet’s follow-ups. A Very Long Engagement (2004) – also featuring Amélie’s breakout star, Audrey Tautou – made $70 million on a $56.6 million budget. It was by no means a hit, but at least, it wasn’t a total embarrassment. But Micmacs (2009) made only $16 million on a $42 million budget, and The Young & Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013), a gorgeous 3-D spectacle, made a shockingly low $9 million on a $33 million budget. (All figures are from Box Office Mojo and The Numbers.)
This is not about the quality of the films, or indeed, Jeunet’s abilities as a filmmaker. I rate A Very Long Engagement more highly than Amélie, whose charm fades after the first delightful watch. And Alien: Resurrection (1997) is one of my favourite films in the space-horror franchise. But the box office is a cold indication of whether people are buying tickets to a director’s films, and from this metric, it’s clear that Jeunet’s post-Amélie work has left viewers increasingly cold. One can never be too sure about the reasons for these things, but here’s a theory. There’s no doubt that Jeunet is one of the most distinctive, most clever, most inventive filmmakers around. But can there be something like too distinctive, too clever, too inventive – and can that quality become tiresome after a point?
A very specific signature is why we revere the great stylists and suffix their name with an -ian or an -esque: Hitchcockian, Bergmanesque, Kubrickian. But take two Hitchcock films, and though you may find broad similarities – suspense set pieces, an innocent man on the run – the look and feel keeps changing. I suspect Jeunet’s look-and-feel is so specific that (according to some people, at least) if you’ve seen one film, you’ve seen them all. In this context, it’s useful to revisit a 1999 Pedro Almodóvar interview, where he was asked about the more “serious” tone his recent films (The Flower of My Secret, Live Flesh, All About My Mother) had taken. Almodóvar said, “That’s true… since Flower, I have tended toward greater sobriety, greater simplicity and greater transparency in the resolution of each shot and each image.”
In other words, he had changed.
“Always, my movie will be very bright for the American audience, because my culture is very colourful. But my palette is obviously changing, I think because I was very saturated with myself and what I did in the ‘80s. I was very fed up with being ‘Almodóvar’... Everything that was brought to me by the crew that could have been said to be very ‘Almodóvarian’. I rejected immediately. In The Flower of My Secret, supposedly my style was already very defined, and so the crew, the art director, the costume director, etc would always bring examples of things – furniture, clothes, etc – that were very much in that style. And I rejected them immediately. Sometimes it’s dangerous to have a trademark, especially when that trademark has been successful, because suppose that you do not evolve?”
It’s a tricky situation. An artist makes a mark because of the things that are unique to him, and yet, when these traits become too unique, we move on. We say “This director is doing the same thing all over again…” Is that fair? I guess not. But I guess it’s also inevitable in an era where we are spoilt for choice. Why opt for a filmmaker whose work we know when there’s someone out there with traits we haven’t seen? Watching Micmacs, recently, I felt bad for Jeunet. It doesn’t come together perfectly, but it’s so unique and charming, and so full of visual ideas that it’s like a box of artisanal cupcakes. Maybe that’s the problem. At home, we don’t have to eat it all at one go, but in the theatre, after a point, sugar shock sets in.
Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).
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