Ladies and gentlemen, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, ringleader of vaudeville extraordinaire, has done it again! Come one, come all to see this magnificent troupe of outstanding oddities and this time, our simple and loveable folk are taking on the big guns, and quite literally they are taking down artillery manufacturers. Come see this show’s Grimm twist of ye olde tale of tragedy and conflict with evil MNCs and unassuming victims with vendettas. You are in for a steam-punk treat.
The self-aware Jeunet establishes a tentatively serious note for this revenge story; he opens with a man meandering through the sandy Arab desert before the camera pulls back to a birds-eye view of a violent explosion that blows him apart. There is a swing back to the family afflicted by this inordinate death, and we are introduced to a young Bazil. As the camera eye continues to project from the point-of-view of this little boy, we are brought back to Jeunet’s familiar playfulness despite the underlying morbidity of the sins of wealthy industrialists and terrorism.
Shortly after, we meet the grown-up Bazil (Dany Boon), recumbent on his armchair with squeezed cheese hanging from his mouth, reciting verbatim the dialogue while watching “The Big Sleep”. For a laconic man, his uncanny ability to recite from film scripts numbers one of his many quirks. Bazil reminds us of another Quentin Tarantino film nerd. Unsurprisingly, Bazil clerks a video store until his shot in the head from a stray bullet, later discovered to belong to one of two artillery corporations responsible for his father’s death. After losing everything during his convalescence from surgery with a silver bullet in his brain that can kill him at anytime, Bazil meets Placard while street performing for change. With a compassionate hand, Placard leads Bazil to Tire-Larigot, the junkyard home of cast-away belongings and cast-away people. Beneath the soot and rhythmic pangs of mechanical productivity, this new home feels a bit like the cottage of the Seven Dwarves and Dany Boon does make a charming Snow White with Nicolas Thibault de Fenouillet and Francois Marconi as his banishing evil stepmothers. While this film is a little too goofy and colorful to be a proper noir, with the evil corporations placed across the street from each other and Bazil’s hallucinations obtrusively edited into the narrative, the perilous atmosphere and artful exploits are just as intense.
As the others in his outfit of misfits show up and become accomplices in his vendetta against the two arms manufacturers, we find each and every one just as darling and spectacular as the last. A Jeunet film never feels proper without Dominique Pinon and so we have Fracasse as a Frankenstein of metalwork and very proud human cannonball. Calculette (Marie-Julie Baup) is the human calculator of everything measureable. Remington is a stenographer who speaks in quips, cultural slogans and French puns. Bazil’s later love interest, La Mome Caoutchouc, is a spunky contortionist somewhere between “a bad girl and a tomboy”. Petit Pierre acts as the Geppetto for their junk heap of mechanical puppets. As mother and chef for everyone in this ragtag house of colorful orphans, there is the loving Tambouille.
Even with the witty and loveable cast, the film has very much to say (and many puns to deliver that may be lost on the English audience) and we get no more than a one-liner for each character’s biography and a busy resume of the troupe’s quirky talents. Despite these foibles while not much is physically said by the characters, much of the charm is won by their exaggerated facial expressions and discourse of bodily movements reminiscent of Charles Chaplin and other mimetic actors of the silent comedy era.
Among the ideas tenuously juggled in this helter-skelter of misadventures, one that sets the teeth on edge is why, when their equipment repeatedly failed in the middle of the film, disclaim that it's because it's all scrap anyways and not follow through with that awkward refrain. Jeunet appears to suggest an allegory for the characters’ imminent failure due to their “scrapped” nature. If we're expected to anticipate the failure of their campaign, fans of Jeunet's films know better. When has he not delivered a fairy tale ending? He might as well devote more time bemusing us with a number of his other charming traits. The chimney references to “Delicatessen” are delectable and his slap-stick humor is contagious!
For his revenge, Bazil orchestrates an intricate scheme to frame Thibault and Marconi as belligerent rivals in a series of scandalous and physical assaults. The antics come one after another with all deliberate speed and you feel like you’re tagging along a car chase with Guy Richie. Following the climax, there is a very public unveiling of their guilty pleas presented from the terrified perpetrators' perspective and from the makeshift reality of their Abu Graib-style capture and interrogation. However, when you consider the simplicity and silliness that led to the breaking points of the villains and third-party bad guys such as the African rebels, the story arch falls as flat as the Iron Man movies in handling the same subject. In addition, the ending does disappoint the promethean impulse when the silver bullet, we'll call it Bazil's poison apple, never ends up killing him and the initially hapless hero ends up with the girl. Although I am an avid fan of fairy tale narratives like those of Wes Anderson films, the five-year-old in me found their final kiss scene gagtacular. Despite the flat note, I'd say for the fairy tale charm, the wonderful jokes and crafty feats, send in the clowns!