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Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest movie Micmacs is a condensation of many of the stylistic and thematic concerns apparent from his earlier films: warmly desaturated cinematography, an idiosyncratic and catchy soundtrack, characters who construct their world out of the recycled detritus of the industrial age, a concern with lists and calculations and categories. Micmacs is set in what looks like a contemporary French city, but its real location is some anachronistic present, where the characters negotiate the internet and factory junkyards with equal facility.

The most specific place and time in the film is the wartime North Africa of the 1950s where Bazil’s father gets killed by a landmine. We catch glimpses of the watch that the adult Bazil wears: a military watch, labelled specifically for that conflict. Aside from that, the present. Not really modern, not really 21st-century, but some world where arms dealers and powerful men can still be undone by the patched-together ingenuity of salvagers that Bazil finds company with. One of his friends is loquacious African ethnographer, an interesting character given the nostalgic whiteness that Jeunet’s earlier Amelie was accussed of portraying.

[Micmacs: à tire-larigot, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2009]

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[I’m going to go right to the end of the story here, so if you haven’t seen the film you should probably stop reading now.]

Bazil has a bullet in the brain from a drive-by shooting, and his predicament is that the bullet might shift and kill him instantly at any moment. On a salvage run one day, he finds himself in the industrial neighbourhood of two rival arms factories, one which has made his bullet, and the other the mine that killed his father. Now he has a mission. By the end, the arms dealers have had their precious collections of cars and historical body-parts (sic) trashed, duped into fighting each other, and finally, brought to face the mothers of the children maimed by their products. The CEOs have been kidnapped, shipped to the middle east, and are given a live grenade to hold and a mine to stand on. The mothers hold in front of them photographs of their children.

This too is elaborate theatre of course, and they haven’t in fact even left the city. The veiled mothers are in fact our plucky band of scavengers and the revenge that they exact is not just the momentary terror of explosive death, but the more lingering humiliation of the CEOs’ confessions posted to YouTube. A friend of mine says that this “is the political triumph of the film – not a sermon, but a viral video.”

I wonder if Jeunet used actual pictures of real kids, now limbless from careless ordnance? It sure looks like he did; the pictures seemed pretty convincing to me, flashed on the screen as they were. Let’s say that there were real. If so, they’re doing something clever and extraordinary. The photographs connect the frivolous tale, the merry film, to reality. Inside the fiction film, and inside the fakery within the film, these photos refer to a troubling reality. The arms dealer motivation is no longer just a plot device, no longer a maguffin that motivates the action but that we don’t need to really care for to jump into the story (corrupt ministers, or secret plans, say). No, here, that short moment of reality reminds us the audience of this real and horrible thing. Like the Micmacs movie posters that appear on billboards in various shots, the presence of the photographs reminds us that it is a fiction film. But now, it’s a film that says: ‘We have these plots and shenanigans. Remember, though, that landmines are serious matters’. Even if the photos are fictions, they still point towards a world outside the film in a way that is more weighty than simply having ‘secret plans’ as a motivating factor.

As P reminds me, something similar happens in Waltz with Bashir: the animation cuts to video footage of the aftermath of a massacre. It’s abrupt and shocking. And it doesn’t turn away. But Bashir is a documentary, after all.

For Micmacs, this whimsical fiction (and I don’t mean that as a criticism), it’s a deft move. The photographs disappear from the screen, the moment of solemnity gone. The characters take their revenge, the foes are vanquished, romance is kindled, all are happy. But I’m still thinking about those pictures.