Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Morocco, 1984. A routine bomb disposal goes wrong, killing the father of young Bazil. Back home in France, his mother – overcome with grief – is taken into care, essentially leaving Bazil an orphan.

The present. Bazil (Dany Boon) holds down a dead-end job in a video store. One night, he’s caught in the crossfire of a drive-by and a bullet lodges in his brain. A doctor flips a coin whether to remove it. The bullet is left in.

Summarily evicted from his dingy apartment after he gets out of hospital and his old job at the video store now being fulfilled by someone else, Bazil finds himself on the streets. He’s quickly adopted by a rag-tag group of eccentrics who live in a commune under a rubbish tip. All are outsiders, all have some special talent. All come to Bazil’s aid when he discovers that the arms manufacturer who made the mine that killed his father have premises directly opposite the firm who made the bullet in his head. Together, they plan an elaborate revenge.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I missed ‘Micmacs a Tire-Larigot’ (to give it its full title) at the cinema and only got my DVD copy from Amazon a couple of days ago. This review is based on one viewing which circumstances dictated splitting over two nights (something I hate – I always prefer to watch a film in one sitting). Also, instead of spending the first part of this evening organising my thoughts on it and starting to sketch out this review, I went to see ‘The Killer Inside Me’ and had a beer afterwards. Hence this very quick, not particularly well-polished review which I’ve given myself an hour to write so I can be sure of posting it tonight and complete the Jeunet festival this month before Shots on the Blog kicks off in July.

And whaddaya know, I’m already wasting words.

About halfway through ‘Micmacs’ the thought occurred to me that I’d follow up my not-Jeunet-enough carping about ‘A Very Long Engagement’ with some it’s-too-Jeunet carping about this one. Jeunet has stated that he made it after wasting two years in pre-production on ‘Life of Pi’, an intended adaptation of Yan Martel’s novel, before the studio pulled the plug over budgetary concerns. ‘Micmacs’ was born of his desire not to waste any more time and simply get a film made.

It shows. Every frame, every composition, every wacky device the protagonists build from rubbish and scrap metal, every manic set-piece is so deeply imbued with the urge to create images and bring the bizarre to life that it almost – almost – borders on desperation. I wonder how long the script was in development. It feels like a lot of ideas that were being kicked around for various different projects suddenly got bundled together. I also wonder how much of the film’s humour is lost in translation. My knowledge of French is incredibly minimal, but it seemed like a lot of wordplay was going on, the import of which didn’t make it to the subtitles. Also there are moments where the characters are singing or talking over each other that are unaccompanied by subtitles.

The film begins promisingly. The explosion which kills Bazil’s father is expected but effective. A montage of the immediate aftermath, his orphanage and his attempt to escape the sadistic nuns at a convent school is a tad ‘Amelie’-ish, but well paced and establishes Bazil’s ingenuity. The accidental shooting and an inspired segue into the opening credits put us firmly in Jeunet territory and I was rubbing my hands in delight.

It’s very hit and miss from hereon in, though. Bazil’s new comrades, while lovingly played by the likes of Dominique Pinon (natch), Yolande Moreau and Julie Ferrier, are ciphers defined only by one quirk or special talent; the script laboriously contrives a scene that lets each of them shine. The escalating series of pranks on the arms dealers, designed to play them off against each other and facilitate a destructive rivalry, are distracted from by a murky subplot about provision of weaponry for an overseas coup. Individual sequences veer from deliciously inventive to ploddingly moribund. A distraction staged at an airport is set-up with join-the-dots anticipation of chaotic hilarity, but pays off desultorily. Oh, and there’s an embarrassingly incorporated ‘Delicatessen’ in-joke that achieves little beyond reminding you how much better that film is.

Fortunately, Jeunet pulls out the stops for the double whammy ending. A cartoonish but wholly entertaining chase sequence is followed by a curious scene which initially seems to have wandered in from a far different, and much more serious, movie (no spoilers, let’s just say that it addresses the human cost of what the arms manufacturers do for a living) only for Jeunet to pull the rug from under his audience in magnificent style. The last ten minutes provide a sneaky commentary on the nature of the filmed image and how easy it is to pull the wool over someone’s eyes by means of simple misdirection. It’s almost an essay on the nature of filmmaking.

So: let’s bring these hastily typed thoughts and muddled impressions into order. ‘Micmacs’ is more Jeunet than ‘A Very Long Engagement’, but it’s uneven. Flashes of that pure Jeunet genius rub shoulders with middling scenes that are little more than Jeunet-by-the-numbers. It’s great to see the genuine crazy subversiveness pop its head up now and then, but it makes you yearn for the glory days of his collaborations with Caro.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Very Long Engagement

France, the First World War. Five soldiers are court-marshalled for perpetrating self-inflicted wounds in an attempt to get sent home. Among them is Manchen Langonnet (Gaspard Ulliel). Instead of a firing squad, they are sent over the top to almost certain death in no-man’s-land.

After the war, Manech’s fiancée Mathilde (Audrey Tautou), to whom he became engaged just before he was called up and who has never believed the official account of his death, engages a lawyer and a private detective – before, frustrated with their lack of progress, taking up the investigation herself – to discover the truth.

As she uncovers information about the other four men, she crosses paths with the vengeful Tina (Marion Cotillard), herself betrothed to one of the accused, and makes a discovery that both shocks her and redoubles her faith that Manech is alive.

As Bryce commented in his article on ‘Foutaises’, there are two schools of thought regarding Jeunet. One has it that he’s a genius; the other that it was his former partner Marc Caro who brought the innovative and creative brilliance while Jeunet was an adept frontman who was good with actors. ‘Amelie’ provides an emphatic and pretty much inarguable “not guilty” plea. ‘A Very Long Engagement’, however, goes some way to establishing a case for the prosecution.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a bad film. In fact, it’s handsomely mounted, beautifully designed, suitably sweeping in scope and length (at 127 minutes, it’s Jeunet’s longest outing) and never less than watchable. Which is part of the problem. It falls into the trap that most romantic dramas set against a backdrop of war fall into during the opening credits and never get out of. The phrase “romantic drama set against a backdrop of war” ought to tell you all you need to know.

It’s Oscar-bait. Or Cesar-bait. Whichever, it’s lush and beautiful and has a handful of scenes which comment on The Futility Of War. These are obligatorily juxtaposed with a handful scenes which swooningly affirm that Love Conquers Everything. The period recreation is lovingly nostalgic. The production design makes your average box of Belgian chocolates look diabetic. It’s something to be thankful for, amidst all this, that David Lynch regular Angelo Badalamenti composed the score and not John Williams!

All told, ‘A Very Long Engagement’ comes on like some lost David Lean epic, only in French and clocking it at less than four hours. And I reiterate: it’s neither badly done nor a waste of two hours. It’s just a very ordinary piece of work from a director renowned for his inspired quirkiness. True, there are plenty of idiosyncratic touches (Mathilde communicating her depressive moods by monotonously playing one note on the tuba; a running joke about a postman disturbing a gravelled pathway; a couple of bizarro no-man’s-land scenes that play more like ‘Abbott and Costello’ than ‘King and Country’) that remind you who’s calling the shots, but on the whole Jeunet plays it safe with the material.

Which, to be fair, was kind of inevitable; with a budget of over $56 million, the production required the backing of Warner Bros. It was never going to be ‘The City of Lost Children Part II’.

That ‘A Very Long Engagement’ would emerge as a Jeunet project was also kind of inevitable; after ‘Amelie’, a second collaboration between Jeunet and Tautou was a given. Part of the attraction (and equally part of the problem) is how different a character Mathilde is from Amelie. And, yes, Tautou gets to demonstrate her range. But Mathilde – her leg crippled from polio, her brow etched with a frown of determination, her resolve steely – isn’t the most captivating heroine to spend two hours with. Nor does the architecture of the narrative give her much to do but receive letters, make phone calls, stare moodily out of the window during train journeys and badger supporting characters (who are invariably more interesting) with a barrage of expositionally-designed questions.

The film massively perks up (as well as shooting itself in the foot eminently more successfully than Manech or any of his comrades in arms) with the introduction of Tina. As portrayed by the dangerously desirable Cotillard, Tina is pro-active where Mathilde is re-active; seducer where Mathilde is sleuth. She’s the thinking man’s femme fatale, the vamp de luxe, the good time girl gone bad and with good reason. ‘A Very Long Engagement’ smoulders into life whenever she’s on screen.

“We’ve been conducting the same investigation,” Tina tells Mathilde during her final scene (which comes about two thirds of the way through the movie and marks the point at which things settle back into inertia) and the thought springs unstoppably into your mind: yeah – and the filmmakers have been telling the wrong story!

Am I being too hard on ‘A Very Long Engagement’? Maybe so; I seem to have spent 800 words carping about a film I actually quite like. It’s just very difficult to shake the fact that Jeunet’s serving up safe, generic, inoffensive Sunday afternoon TV when – even in the most whimsically romantic moments of ‘Amelie’ – his talent has always been better applied to the subversive.

Monday, June 28, 2010


Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Eurovisions (France) / In category: 4 of 10 / Overall: 42 of 100

Montmartre, the present. Twenty-something Amelie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) works as a waitress and lives in the world of her imagination, a result of a childhood spent with her emotionally inexpressive father and deprived of close friends because of a misdiagnosed medical condition. She’s not doing too well on the relationships front.

The accidental discovery of a tin box filled with childhood mementoes leads Amelie on a search for a previous resident of her apartment. She contrives to return it to him while preserving her anonymity and is delighted with his poignant response. Amelie reinvents herself as a do-gooder and match-maker, with some early success.

It’s when she encounters the enigmatic Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz) that Amelie realises she’s been neglecting her own life and happiness. She comes into possession of a scrapbook which Nino drops – full of reassembled photographs torn up and left at passport photo booths on stations – and notices that one face, ghost-like, appears time and time again.

Amelie uses the book and its curious contents to track down Nino, inadvertently solving the identity of the mystery man in the process …

‘Amelie’ is a masterpiece.

Two years ago, in a review of Powell and Pressburger’s ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ (an ethereal and enchanting romantic fantasy that is, in certain ways, the spiritual forebear of ‘Amelie’), I chanced a definition of art. I was a pretentious little sod back then.

This was my definition: “A true work of art functions, equally and simultaneously, on an aesthetic, intellectual and emotional level, the cumulative effect being the betterment of those who experience it.”

I believed (and still believe) that this is absolutely true of ‘A Matter of Life and Death’. I believe it is equally true of ‘Amelie’. It’s an aesthetically gorgeous movie that delivers a heady onrush of emotional satisfaction while having the intelligence (and a soupçon of dark humour) to steer clear of outright emotional manipulation or cloying sentimentality.

‘Amelie’ is also incredibly cleverly constructed, more so than a first viewing would have you believe. On the surface ‘Amelie’ seems to be an exercise in non-narrative, flitting between serio-comic situations and playfully eccentric characters with such butterfly-like charm that it would be bad sportsmanship to probe the soufflé-light edifice of it too deeply or critically.

After enough viewings (I’m significantly into the double figures), the structural intricacy gradually becomes apparent. As does the depth of characterization. Take the scenes from Amelie’s childhood, a whistlestop montage of nostalgia, backstory and craftily delivered exposition. Amelie is socially awkward because she lives in a dreamworld. This is because she lived alone with her father following the freak confluence of circumstances that caused her mother’s demise (I’ll leave the mechanics of it under wraps; let’s just say it’s way funnier than it has any right to be) and had no real friends. This is because she was thought to have a heart condition and was kept at home. Which in turn is because the only time Amelie’s father paid her any attention was when he performed a medical check-up, including listening to her heartbeat through a stethoscope. Delighted at the attention, her heart beats faster in anticipation. Her father worries that it’s a bad sign, conducting check-ups more frequently; Amelie, associating them with the attention that is otherwise denied her, feigns illness.

Or, to put it in mawkish terms, Amelie’s social ineptitude and lack of emotional fulfillment in adulthood owes to her desperation for her father’s love as a child. Seriously, how puke-making does that make it sound? Can you imagine how that scenario would work in an American mainstream movie? It’d be like ‘Terms of Endearment’, ‘Sophie’s Choice’, ‘Who Will Love My Children’ and ‘Steel Magnolias’ all thrown into a blender with added saccharine; watching it would be like drowning in a vat of syrup. John Williams would pull out all the stops for the soundtrack. The amount of vibrato would cause earthquakes. Can you imagine it done in a rom-com? It would ravage the rom and kill the com!

Now here’s the way Jean-Pierre Jeunet does it: a few lines of droll (almost throwaway) voiceover, a handful of quirky images, no dwelling on the backstory or milking of the emotions, and hey presto here’s another scene and some more deliriously offbeat characters and frame upon frame of images so lovingly rendered you could hit the pause button at random and just stare in complete gratitude at the screen.

Or take the effortless way Amelie’s search for the owner of the tin box sets up the supporting cast, all of whom eventually benefit (to a greater or lesser degree) from Amelie’s do-gooding. And here, ironically, is where Jeunet and his co-scripter Guillaume Laurant infuse the proceedings with the odd shadowy reminder that not all is sweetness and light. There’s Amelie’s revenge on Collignon (Urbair Cancelier), a bad-tempered grocer who comes across as a cinematic second cousin of Clapet in ‘Delicatessen’, for mistreating his educationally-challenged assistant Lucien (Jamel Debbouze). Sure, Collignon deserves it … but, man, does Amelie pull some nasty shit on him, reducing the man to a terrified, gibbering wreck.

Then there’s her well-meaning but emotionally and morally questionable duping of Madeleine (Yolande Moreau), a widow pining for the husband who died in a plane crash. Madeleine has spent years pouring over his letters and perpetuating a monumental case of denial. Although common knowledge that he’d left her for another woman, Madeleine tells herself that he was on the verge of returning to her. Amelie, catching a news story about a letter recovered from a crash site and delivered to its addressee decades later, plays to Madeleine’s self-delusion by concocting a fake letter. Again, it’s a scene so blithe in its execution that you don’t immediately stop to worry about how justified or otherwise Amelie is in her actions.

There are other dark and sometimes unexpected touches: Nino’s part-time job at a porn shop; Amelie imagining a news report of her own funeral; Amelie and Nino’s first actual meeting on a ghost train, Nino dressed as a skeleton; Amelie’s match-making backfiring as the couple’s relationship fragments under a mélange of neuroses, jealousy and hypochondria. It’s probably the savory tang of these moments that makes ‘Amelie’ work; saves it from becoming too cutesy and sentimental.

I’ve broken the 1,000 word mark on this article and could double or triple that with ease. But time is marching on and I’ve got ‘A Very Long Engagement’ to watch. There is plenty more to say about the film – I’ll doubtless revisit it some day on this blog – but the final word goes to the cast. The Jeunet Regulars – Dominique Pinon, Ticky Holgado and Rufus – are present and correct and doing stellar work. Indeed, every role is perfectly essayed. But, oh, the title role. The casting goes beyond perfect. Audrey Tautou defines the title role. Audrey Tautou was born to play Amelie.

And Jeunet to direct it.

Foutaises (avec Monsieur Bryce)

Bryce Wilson at Things That Don’t Suck joins in the Jeunet retrospective with a piece on the Cesar-winning short film ‘Foutaises’.

The review also gives consideration both to the differing schools of thought regarding Jeunet and the importance of Marc Caro in their artistic relationship.

Oh, and he tosses in a capsule review of ‘Alien Resurrection’ that sums up the film in about 900 words less than it took me in last night’s post.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Alien Resurrection

The future. 200 years after the events of ‘Alien 3’. Onboard American science vessel USM Auriga, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has been cloned using blood samples retrieved from Fiorina 161. The scientists, under the command of General Perez (Dan Hedaya), have surgically removed from her the embryo of the alien queen. The Ripley clone is treated as a virtual prisoner while Dr Gediman (Brad Dourif) subjects her to further study.

The alien queen is also a virtual prisoner, kept below decks, her eggs harvested for ongoing experiments. Perez has dealings with a band of mercenaries led by Elgyn (Michael Wincott); they hijack ships and kidnap crewmembers, placing them in cryogenic sleep. Perez’s scientists then expose them to facehuggers and monitor the results.

When the mercenary’s ship, the Betty, docks with the Auriga to deliver the latest payload, Call (Winona Ryder) recognises Ripley and realises Perez and co. are using her to reproduce aliens. An alien which Gediman has been trying to inculcate Pavlovian responses in escapes and the Auriga’s crew are decimated in short order. Only Dr Wren (J.E. Freeman) survives. He, Ripley and the badasses from the Betty reluctantly join forces.

Wren tells the others that the Auriga is programmed, in the event of emergency, to set course for Earth. With only a three hour window, Ripley leads the ragtag group on a mission to get back to the Betty and destroy the Auriga before the aliens can wreak even greater havoc on Earth.

‘Alien Resurrection’ is the only Jean-Pierre Jeunet film thus far in which he had no hand in the script. It was written by Joss Whedon. There’s probably a scholarly article to be written analysing how much of the aesthetic owes to Jeunet and how much to Whedon. This is not that article.

It’s certainly a Jeunet film in that its main character is marginalised. Louison in ‘Delicatessen’ and One in ‘The City of Lost Children’ were circus performers: a clown and a strongman respectively. If the Ripley of ‘Alien Resurrection’ fetched up at their circus, she’d be exhibited as a sideshow freak within a heartbeat.

I used the phrase “the Ripley of ‘Alien Resurrection’” because this is not the same Ripley of the other movies. The Ripley of ‘Alien 3’, impregnated by the alien queen and little more than an exploitable commodity in the eyes of The Company, killed herself and the thing inside her. A pretty definite ending. ‘Alien Resurrection’ spends its opening twenty minutes considering the cloning element of the plot and the dangers of Dr Wren and his colleagues’ experiments, before swiftly sidelining these considerations once an alien gets loose, the Auriga’s crew gets munched and the crew of the Betty have a very bad day.

What those opening twenty minutes leave us in no doubt about, however, is that a very different Ripley is heading up ‘Alien Resurrection’. This Ripley carries both alien and human DNA; her senses are keener, more animalistic; her strength and agility have increased. Like the aliens, her blood is acidic. Her instincts and behaviour patterns are more akin to the aliens. This, to put in bluntly, is a considerably less human Ripley.

So, if the script marks it out as a Joss Whedon film (particularly with regard to the interaction between the crew of the Betty, which comes on as a testing of the waters for ‘Firefly’ and ‘Serenity’) and the presence of Dominique Pinon and Ron Perlman – not to mention some offbeat visuals and a streak of gallows humour – as a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film, how does it fit into the overall scheme of the ‘Alien’ franchise?

The massive gap between the timelines of ‘Alien 3’ and ‘Alien Resurrection’ – at 200 years, far longer than the 57 years between ‘Alien’ and ‘Aliens’ – and the necessity of re-introducing Ripley as a product of cloning given the ending of ‘Alien 3’ mean that ‘Resurrection’ was always going to be a very different film. One of Whedon’s most memorable lines has someone opine that Weyland-Yutani was taken over by Wal-Mart! The experiments onboard the Auriga and being conducted under the auspices of the US military (US now meaning United Systems), yet before they can properly be established as the faceless bio-weaponry obsessed all-purpose villain personified by Weyland-Yutani in the earlier movies, all but one of the Auriga’s crew are killed and the focus shifts to the mercenaries.

Here, however, there is at least a connection to the earlier instalments. Tooled up, the mercenaries function similarly to the Marines in ‘Aliens’ (the no-guns aesthetic of ‘Alien 3’ is definitely not in evidence in ‘Resurrection’); their general amorality isn’t too far removed from that of the prisoners in ‘Alien 3’. That the film takes place almost entirely on a spaceship, the corridors, hatches, ducts and airlocks of which provide maximum opportunity for suspense, is evocation of the original ‘Alien’. But it’s more than just a fan-boy-friendly greatest hits package.

If ‘Alien’ is sci-fi meets stalk ‘n’ slash, ‘Aliens’ sci-fi meets war movie and ‘Alien 3’ sci-fi meets prison drama, then ‘Resurrection’ is sci-fi meets disaster movie. Just as Jeunet stages the denouement of ‘Delicatessen’ around the flooding of the apartment block and ‘The City of Lost Children’ around the imminent destruction of Krank’s aquatic hideout, thus the second half of ‘Resurrection’ with Ripley and co. battling aliens as they make their way across the waterlogged and crippled length of the Auriga has its cinematic antecedents in the likes of ‘The Poseidon Adventure’. This is nowhere more evident than in a tense extended sequence where the survivors are compelled to swim through a flooded hold only to discover that the aliens have adapted themselves to the environment.

The disaster theme is also prevalent in the cynical finale which reveals, like the punchline to a sick joke, exactly how little has been at stake during the last half of the movie. It’s the final poison-coated barb in a franchise that has delivered something different with each instalment while unceasingly putting its heroine through hell.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The City of Lost Children

Circus strongman One (Ron Perlman) looks after Denree (Joseph Lucien), a young boy he refers to as “little brother”. When Denree is kidnapped by the Cyclops gang, who rely on artificial lenses to see with, One goes to the rescue.

He is aided by Miette (Judith Vittet), a member of a gang of street urchins who undertake daring robberies at the behest of the bitter and vindictive Pieuvre sisters (Geneviève Brunet and Odile Mallet). The Pieuvres are Siamese twins who are nicknamed the Octopus on account of their combined multiplicity of arms.

The Pieuvre sisters respond to Miette’s departure from the gang by employing Marcello (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), the former circus master who used to exhibit them as sideshow freaks, to track them down. Marcello is assisted by his fleas, who are trained to inject their victims with a small vial attached to their mandibles which contains a mind-control drug.

Denree has been sold to Krank (Daniel Emilfork), a crazed inventor who lives on an oil-rig-like construction surrounded by mines. With the help of Madamoiselle Bismuth (Mireille Mossé) and her cloned children (all played by Dominique Pinon) and Uncle Irvin, a brain in a fishtank with an ancient camera for an eye (voiced by Jean-Louis Trintigant), Krank is stealing children’s dream as part of an experiment in reverting the ageing process.

The clones, frustrated by Krank’s controlling behaviour, are obsessed by which one of them is the original. Uncle Irvin plays on their disaffections and persuades one of them to throw a canister overboard containing a green mist which communicates the history of Krank’s bizarre hideaway and the misdeeds carried out there.

The canister eventually falls into the hands of The Diver (Pinon again) who realises with horror that he has a connection to Krank and his collaborators. As Krank, impressed by Denree’s resilience, attempts to steal the young boy’s dreams, The Diver and One and Miette converge on his hideaway …

The most commonly applied critical epithet during the Jeunet and Caro years was “the French version of Terry Gilliam”. It’s an understandable comparison, and the Gilliamesque style of grotesquery and exaggerated visuals in nowhere more apparent than in ‘The City of Lost Children’. But there’s more than just a touch of Gilliam about the project. Allow me to indulge in the lazy-assed it’s-X-meets-Y school of film writing that I usually disparage:

If Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, Tod Browning, Jules Verne and the Brothers Grimm locked themselves away for a couple of years, drank tequila shots until their minds started to bleed and then did copious quantities of LSD, they’d probably make something almost as weird as ‘The City of Lost Children’. I mean, come on, you’ve read my synopsis right? Circus performers, fleas that inject mind-control drugs, conjoined villainesses, dream-theft and a freakin’ brain in a freakin’ fish tank. All that malarkey about what’s behind the radiator in ‘Eraserhead’ kind of looks like a Ken Loach slice of social realism in comparison.

And if that parade of purple prose isn’t enough to make the point, check out these random images:

There is much that connects the world of ‘The City of Lost Children’ to the world of ‘Delicatessen’, not least the amount of familiar faces. Pinon and Dreyfus return in significantly different roles (Dreyfus’s transformation, from the steely and brutal Clapet to the twitchy and nervy Marcello, is astounding), while Ticky Holgado and Rufus round out the nucleus of what would become the Jeunet Regulars; elsewhere, Marc Caro makes a cameo (he also shows up in ‘The Bunker of the Last Gunshots’ and ‘Delicatessen’). Ambiguities in period and location also prove reminiscent of ‘Delicatessen’, as does set design.

Two things mark out ‘The City of Lost Children’ as different, though. The first is perspective. There were only two children in ‘Delicatessen’, both supporting characters and neither fulfilling much of a narrative role beyond a couple of pranks – one of which takes the viewer into the milieu of Howard Vernon’s snail-eating misanthrope, the other of which foils the postman’s attempt on Louison’s life in the finale. ‘The City of Lost Children’ – as the title suggests – is keys into childhood and children’s perceptions from the outset. The first scene opens with a snowy vista through a misty window. The camera glides back and we see a teddy bear and a wind-up toy on the windowsill. A child lies in a cot, a mobile leisurely turning above him. It’s a chocolate box portrayal of childhood: idyllic, evocative; it almost flirts with schmaltz. Then a rope clatters down the chimney into the hearth. A figure dressed as Santa emerges. Followed by another. And another. And another. Soon the room is filled with Santas. A wide-angle lens distorts and exaggerates perception. The child starts crying. A reindeer defecates. It’s quickly revealed as a dream sequence … only, in direct contravention of accepted movie logic (a character waking from a nightmare is restored to normalcy), the dreamer wakes to imprisonment, a bulky contraption strapped to their head, their dream poisoned into nightmare by the repulsive Krank.

Adults and adult considerations inform ‘Delicatessen’: commerce and the corruption of power (Clapet keeps the apartment block residents under his thumb by making sure they’re continually in debt to him); activism and resistance (the Troglodytes and the raiding-party style forays above ground); sex and relationships (Madamoiselle Pluisse’s benefits as Clapet’s mistress, the postman’s lecherous designs on Julie, Louison and Julie’s tentative romance); not to mention murder, cannibalism and suicide. Certainly, ‘The City of Lost Children’ has its share of darkness, violence and threat (Marcello’s turning of one of the Cyclops gang on a comrade is chilling; more so later when, his serum-wielding fleas now in the hands of the Octopus, One is briefly the victim and menticide and the sisters turn him against Miette), but the principle characters – and their interactions – are informed by a more innocent sensibility. Denree and Miette are children themselves, albeit all-too-cognisant of the adult world’s wrongness in Miette’s case. One is a man-child, so guileless that he refers to himself in the third person, considers Denree his “little brother” even though the lad is his adopted son, and – when a call-girl tries to inveigle him with her charms, bawls pitifully at the thought that he’s neglected Miette. (Miette’s name translates as “crumb”, which One adopts as a nickname. It’s little details like this that paint One and Miette’s developing relationship as innocent and unspoiled.)

The other difference is structural. Apparently, Jeunet and Caro had ‘The City of Lost Children’ in mind for over a decade before they had a chance to make it. Maybe they had lived in the world of their imagination for so long that they understood every corner of it; knew their characters’ backstories as intimately as their own lives. Whatever the reason, the nifty construction of ‘Delicatessen’ is replaced here by a disjointed and often chaotic approach that pays so little heed to narrative convention that it makes Jodorowsky’s ‘El Topo’ look like an adherent of the Robert McKee model.

The characters in ‘Delicatessen’, while eccentric, were still lovingly sketched and allowed enough screen time to establish themselves. Hurriedly exposited interrelationships serve to introduce and define many of the supporting characters in ‘The City of Lost Children’, with bizarro visuals and OTT performances replacing characterisation. Apart from the revelation that the hapless Marcello was once the Pieuvre sisters’ circus master and the self-evident business about The Diver’s connection to Krank, backstory seems to have been stolen along with the children’s dreams. Exposition, on the rare occasions that Jeunet and Caro bother with it, is purely visual.

Is this a criticism? For many films, yes it would be. Indeed, there are enough instances in Gilliam’s filmography where mise-en-scene has become elevated so far beyond considerations of narrative, characterisation and the necessity of the audience’s emotional engagement with what’s happening onscreen that the end product becomes swamped by visual excess, lunatic acting performances (Jonathan Pryce in ‘The Brothers Grimm’ for example) and set-pieces so determined to be crazy, energetic and cartoonish that they actually come off as grindingly tiring.

However, Jeunet and Caro achieve a small miracle with ‘The City of Lost Children’. Throughout its hour and three quarters, it constantly threatens to tip over into a quagmire of everything it could possibly get wrong; and yet – in One’s poignant relationship with Miette; in the surprisingly affecting scenes between the clones (I’ve never seen pure slapstick played with so much heart; and all credit must surely go to the incredibly talented Dominique Pinon); in the creation of a world that is so perfectly realised and bustles so convincingly with life – Jeunet and Caro spin their surreal and sometimes quite perplexing fairy tale around a genuinely engaging emotional core.

My wife watched ‘The City of the Lost Children’ with me last night; it was the first time she’d seen the film. Her immediate response: “That was utterly bizarre but darkly delightful.” Amen; just like any good fairy tale should be.

Friday, June 25, 2010


The not-too-distant future. Or, y’know, maybe an alternative present. Either way, it’s all kinda 50s retro in its stylisations yet contemporary in its mordant humour.

(Note to self: this is the synopsis part of the article. Just get on with it.)

Okay. Ex-circus performer Louison (Dominique Pinon) turns up at a run-down apartment block looking for work. The apartment block consists of an enclave of oddballs who seem to be the survivors of some kind of catastrophe. Apart from Louison, the only contact with the outside world is the intermittent appearance of a postman (Chick Ortega) who has designs on Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), daughter of the butcher Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus).

In a world where meat is scarce and grain has become a unit of currency, Clapet rules the apartment block like a mob boss. He takes in the occasional handymen in order to keep his customers in meat; thus he holds sway over them, even coercing one snivelling unfortunate who is unable to pay his bill into turning over his mother-in-law.

Julie, repulsed as much by her father’s practises as by the postman’s overtures, develops a gentle romance with the good-natured but naïve Louison. Realising he’s next for the chopping board, she begs her father to spare him. When he refuses, Julie enlists the help of underground subversive group the Troglodytes. Mayhem ensues …

Although ‘Delicatessen’ is a drastically different work from ‘The Bunker of the Last Gunshots’ (to begin with, it’s funny and it has a protagonist you can root for), there’s no doubt it’s the work of the same minds. Ambiguities are rife, particularly with regard to when it’s set. The two schoolboys who seem to be the only non-adult contingent of the apartment block wear short trousers and look like they’ve stepped out of a post-war comic book. Julie’s wardrobe is 50s girl-next-door. Clapet’s girlfriend Madamoiselle Plusse (Karin Viand) sports a sweater-girl look from the same area. TV footage of Louison and his former partner – a monkey called Livingston – performing at the circus is broadcast in black and white. The Troglodytes seem to be an affectionate homage to the French Resistance, turning the frame of reference back to the 40s. The cannibalism element evokes 70s exploitationers as well as pre-supposing the Hilary Briss character in ‘The League of Gentlemen’, while Jeunet and Caro’s ability to wring humour out of, for example, a running gag about failed suicide attempts, suggests an aesthetic that reflects a more contemporary sense of malaise.

Does all that make ‘Delicatessen’ sound heavy-going? It isn’t. It’s briskly paced, eminently watchable and, for the most of its 95-minute running time, funny as fuck. The thing is, it shouldn’t be. This is a film where SPOILER ALERT the neurotic Aurore (Silvie Laguna) stages her third suicide attempt by positioning herself in front of a shotgun, angled upwards to take into account that fact that she’s stand on a chair, the better to crane her neck into a noose, the gas stove on and the fuse burning down on an incendiary device. A wire threads from the shotgun to the door handle so that when she calls her husband in, the act of opening the door will apply due pressure to the trigger. Just to make sure, she has a bottle of pills in one hand and a glass of water in the other. She calls her husband, gulps the pills down and readies herself to join the voices who have been calling to her from (she thinks) beyond. SPOILER ALERT RE-EMPHASISED. Her husband enters. The wire jerking the trigger back also dislodges the shotgun; the discharge severs the rope; as she falls backwards, the glass tumbles from her hand and extinguishes the incendiary device; the force of her impact causes her to spew out the pills. All of which is much funnier than it has any right to be. (Hell, I tried to commit suicide once and still get the shakes now and then thinking about what might have happened – and I find it funny.) Then Jeunet and Caro full-stop the sequence with a coda that’s as nastily ironic as anything H.G. Clouzot ever came up with and you find yourself caught between laughter and shocked silence. SPOILERS END.

Likewise, a scene where … oh fuck it, SPOILERS AGAIN … one of the Troglodytes, who spend half the time being cool and iconic and the other half bumbling around incompetently (kind of like a Jack Sparrow prototype a decade before ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’), is shot and the news of his demise is communicated through the ranks in a “pass it on” style redolent of the schoolyard is freighted with the same admixture of horror and humour. SPOILERS END.

“Horror and humour”: the description applies to the residents of the apartment block. There’s the practical joker whose misuse of the acoustic possibilities of the pipework leads Aurore to believe that voices from the other side are encouraging her to join them. There’s the old man (Howard Vernon) who cultivates snails in his semi-flooded apartment; a visual joke at the expense of the culinary leanings of Jeunet and Caro’s fellow countrymen has half of his living room provide a watery home to the molluscs, and the other half as a dumping ground for their post-prandial empty shells. There’s Louison’s predecessor who tries to escape in a rubbish bin disguised as a bundle of wastepaper; his thwarted attempt is the subject of a pre-credits sequence that establishes ‘Delicatessen’ as satirical, subversive, visually imaginative and sometimes bitingly cynical.

But the film is equally wistful, playful and romantic. The scenes between Louison and Julie as their tentative courtship unfolds faltering against a backdrop of bashfulness, hesitance and misunderstanding, stimulates the emotions as much as it does the funny bone. Is it simplifying things to say the Jeunet brought the light and Caro the darkness, Jeunet the sweetness and Caro the sting? Maybe, maybe not. Even ‘Amelie’ – surely the sweetest and most affirmative two hours of cinema in the last couple of decades – has its share of subversive moments.

Ultimately, it matters not who brought what to the project. ‘Delicatessen’ remains one of the most fully-formed statements of a debut filmmaker’s aesthetic. The general consensus of critical opinion was to compare Jeunet and Caro to Terry Gilliam, and if you want to go down that route you can also find trace elements of David Lynch, film noir and more besides. It doesn’t matter whether Jeunet brought the light and Caro the darkness or vice versa or both brought a little bit of each; what’s for damn sure is that both men brought to the project an absolute, unbound, pure, exhilarating love of cinema. Beyond the readily identifiable influences and homages, beyond the stylisations and the terrific performances, infused in the very celluloid is a passion for and understanding of a hundred years of cinema as an art form. It’s the movie-lover’s movie; cinema for the cineaste. It’s entirely appropriate that its authors are French.


A man enumerates his likes and dislikes.

Yup, that’s it folks. That’s your synopsis. Right there. ‘Foutaises’ consists of Dominique Pinon breaking the fourth wall as he guides the audience through a cross section of the things he likes (random examples: pulling up his socks, pissing in the shower, turning on the radio to hear the very song he wanted) and the things he doesn’t (being woken up by his dog’s cold nose, dead Christmas trees dumped on the streets in January). It’s a simple, almost twee subject for a film, one that could have added up to a whole lot of nothing. That, or been cloyingly sentimental.

But in Jeunet’s hands, it’s a gem. A seven minute ode to idiosyncracy. It’s also a virtual blueprint for the sequences in ‘Amelie’ which celebrate the characters’ idiosyncracies. Amelie’s father taking an OCD level of satisfaction in empty his toolbox, cleaning it out and neatly replacing everything? Amelie herself skimming stones or picking up on details in old movies that everyone else misses or despairing of characters in movies who take their eyes off the road while driving? Here’s where those scenes were perfected. Remember the scene where Amelie worries that her paramour has been abducted by bandits, her feverish imaginings played out to an absurdly brilliant stock-footage montage? ‘Foutaises’ employs a similar technique to demonstrate Pinon’s antagony towards the things he dislikes.

If ‘Amelie’ is Jeunet’s most self-conscious movie (and by that, I’m using the Quentin Tarantino definition of a movie movie), then ‘Foutaises’ is again its aesthetic forebear. Every frame reminders you you’re watching a film. The beautifully effected payoff to Pinon’s list of good things and bad things ends with the cinema as most definitely one of the good things … except that Jeunet ends with his protagonist’s curiously poignant observation (confession?) that every trip to the movies is freighted with the anticipation of the words “THE END”.

If the end of ‘Foutaises’ is a fantasia for cinema itself (and its mise-en-scene a practice run, a decade in advance, for some of the most memorable moments in ‘Amelie’), then it kicks off in a manner that presupposes Jeunet’s very next film. The opening credits take the form of price tags pinned amidst the offerings on meat trays in a butcher’s window (Pinon’s first line is a disgusted “bleeeeuuurrrggghhh”, preceding an assertion that he hates butchers’ windows). The camera swings from tray to tray and credit to credit. Only none of the trays, it quickly becomes apparent, hold the kind of products you’d expect. Eyeballs, chicken heads and hands arranged like hors d’ouevres cheerfully glide past our eyes. It’s macabre but amusing.

‘Delicatessen’, with its Machiavellian butcher, was Jeunet’s next film.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Bunker of the Last Gunshots

A group of soldiers of indeterminate nationality shelter in an isolated bunker, on a state of alert against an enemy attack. The all-clear sounds and they stand down, but tensions remain high.

Some form of scientific research seems to be in progress, even though the lab boys appear more interested in killing flies and cockroaches. One of the technicians accidentally triggers a device, beginning a countdown. This provides the impetus for increasingly paranoid and violent behaviour among the men.

‘The Bunker of the Last Gunshots’ is a 24-minute film devoid of dialogue. I would have described it as a silent film, except for the specificity of the sound design. In fact, in a surreal and occasionally disorienting piece of work where ambiguity is the order of the day – is it set in World War II or a retrogressive future? are the soldiers German, Russian or another nationality? who are they fighting? – only the soundscape offers something definite: heavy boots on concrete, the ping of sonic instruments, the blurting of an alarm, the hum of electricity and, in the final moments, the gunshots of the title.

Caro and Jeunet (thus is the directors credit assigned) adopt a style that comes across as Sergei Eisenstein meets David Lynch. The visuals are desaturated, the dominant palette being grey with the occasional wash of blue. It’s the first indication of the use of colour that informs all of Jeunet’s work, be it the rusty browns of ‘Delicatessen’ or the burnished amber of ‘Amelie’.

The look is everything: it defines the nightmare the characters are trapped in; defines the psychoses that isolation, fear of attack and the threat of sudden death have germinated with them. Dialogue would only hinder this film.

‘The Bunker of the Last Gunshots’ isn’t, if I’m being perfectly honest, an immediately likeable film. My first reaction was to be impressed at the visual style, moderately entertained by the bizarre goings-on and fairly nonplussed at the nicely ironic but rather predictable ending. In some respects, it’s like watching a second tier ‘Twilight Zone’ episode when you know what the payoff is. Also, the sheer level of cynicism is surprising, leading you to wonder how telling it is that Caro gets first billing. ‘Bunker’ presents a bleak vision of mankind; if the emphasis were less on grand guignol images and more on character study, it’d be a cold and brutal thing to sit through. Imagine a version by Michael Haneke … or rather don’t.

What it does demonstrate, however, is Jeunet and Caro’s mastery of the visual medium. What better way for a pair of nascent directors to prove they can tell a story, establish a setting or conjure an atmosphere than by relying solely on the juxtaposition of images? Think of how many great set-pieces Jeunet has created that are purely visual: certainly more than one in each film. The symphony of eccentric lives conducted to the creaking of bedsprings in ‘Delicatessen’; the terrifying underwater sequence in ‘Alien Resurrection’; Amelie’s revenge on the bullying greengrocer. There are plenty more … and if you’re not overly familiar with the works of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (with or without Caro as a collaborator), then have fun discovering them.