The mutant homeless

Micmacs (MA). Running time: 105 minutes. Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Starring: Danny Boon, André Dussollier, Nicolas Marié, Julie Ferrier, Dominique Pinon, Michel Crémadès, Marie-Julie Baup

In her 2008 book Superheroes: Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Films, British cultural commentator Roz Kaveney argues a case for the 'liminality' of superheroes. Superheroes, she writes, 'are uncanny and exist at the threshold between states — it is the threshold that is important rather than the states it lies between'.

Superheroes, she continues, can be 'socially dead, though alive, through the loss of their original family', 'exist as figures of the twilight', or take on 'the nature of alchemical elements, while remaining essentially human'. Some are 'morally liminal, good and evil at once'; most are vigilantes, working outside, although ostensibly on the same side as, the law.

Micmacs is the new film from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the visionary French director of Delicatessen (1991) and Amelie (2001). It shares the fantastical whimsy, demented humour and serious subtext that are the trademarks of those idiosyncratic classics. But it is also helpful, if not entirely accurate, to think of Micmacs as a superhero film. That's especially true when armed with Kaveney's concept of 'liminality'.

Its protagonist, Bazil (Boon), lost his parents at a young age. His soldier father was killed by a landmine during a routine military operation. His mother's subsequent mental breakdown and institutionalisation meant Bazil was effectively orphaned. Orphanhood is a superhero trope — think of Batman and Superman, for starters.

As an adult, Bazil is afflicted by a further crisis: he is accidentally shot in the head during a drive-by shooting. The bullet lodges in his brain but doesn't kill him. By the flip of a coin, the surgeon on duty opts not to operate and so to risk causing devastating brain damage. Instead he leaves the bullet where it is, although with the proviso that Bazil could still drop dead at any moment. That said, he is lucky to be alive at all.

This is the kind of extraordinary, traumatic event that in superhero lore takes a 'normal' person to another plane. It's Spider-Man's radioactive spider bite, or the technological crises that afflict and transform the Hulk and the Fantastic Four. Bazil loses his job and his home and takes to the street. His ever-imminent death gives him a new outlook on life. In appearance a vagrant, really he's just living freely, knowing each day could be his last.

In the Marvel comics' universe, the X-Men, whose superhuman gifts cause them to be labelled as mutants and make them the target of bigotry, function as a metaphor for marginalised or persecuted minorities — in particular homosexuals, but also ethnic and other social minorities. In the same way, Bazil, ostracised from his 'normal' life, finds himself on the margins of society, and adopted by a family of homeless eccentrics.

Here is another superhero trope: social 'others' united in their marginalisation by a bond that is not biological but is nonetheless familial. Comic book precedents for this include not just the X-Men, but also the Avengers and the Justice League of America. The members of Bazil's new family include a human cannonball (Pinon), a contortionist (Ferrier), an improbably strong gadgetry wizard (Crémadès) and a human calculator (Baup).

Micmacs is a superhero film with two supervillains. They are rival arms manufacturers Fenouillet (Dussollier) and Marconi (Marié). One was responsible for the land mine that killed Bazil's father; the other, the bullet that is Bazil's cross to bear. Upon discovering the destructive role these men have played in his life, Bazil decides to exact revenge.

Revenge, surely, is not the most superheroic of motives, but these villains are so unequivocally evil (one, a collector of esoteric celebrity artifacts, is in the market for Mussolini's eyeball) that here vengeance substitutes neatly for justice. Bazil and his team of vigilantes employ a series of elaborate schemes to defeat his nemeses. Their imaginative, overly complicated, virtually Rube Goldberg-like offensives are the key set-pieces of the film and, in the hands of a cast of gifted physical comedians, the source of much of its humour and energy.

The film's full title in French is Micmacs à tire-larigot, a colloquialism that translates into something like Non-stop shenanigans. Jeunet does handle the subject matter with a light touch, but it is worth remembering that the film is billed as a satire on the arms trade. In the deception and humiliation of its diabolical antagonists, Micmacs offers catharsis to those of us who question the morality of those who profit from the making of weapons.

It's not true of all superhero sagas but, in Micmacs at least, the goodies emerge victorious, while the baddies get their just desserts.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: Micmacs, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Danny Boon, André Dussollier, Nicolas Marié, Julie Ferrier, Dominique Pinon

 

 

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