There are but a few film-makers who boast such unbridled imagination as French favourite Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Fewer still have the ability to recapture, on camera, the theatre of the mind from which such wondrous invention springs. And of those, only Baz Luhrman and Jeunet himself can command the talent and the budget - on which count you can rub poor Terry Gilliam ou - to adequately and artfully realise the routinely baffling. From Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children through Amelie and A Very Long Engagement, Jeunet has given the farce a heart; a heart and a soul, sweet as icing sugar and soft as the padding on the underside of a kitten's paw.
His latest, Micmacs - literally "shenanigans" (indeed with good reason) - sees the esteemed writer and director return to the very well, and though it's every bit as extravagant and absurd as the cinema we've come to expect from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, though Danny Boon is so haplessly endearing in the lead role as to banish any and all wistfulness over Audrey Tautou's absence, I'm afraid Micmacs rather loses sight of the warmth which has rendered Jeunet's evidently limitless film-making mania into such an exquisite treat in the past.
Boon, however, is a charmer as Bazil, a video-rental store employee struck in the skull by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting. He loses everything but his life. This close to being chalked up as collateral damage, together with an oddball family of fellow down-and-outs - among them a contortionist, a garbage artisan, a human cannonball and a vertically challenged fellow who'll be familiar to Jeunet devotees - he schemes to bring down the arms dealer responsible for the manufacture and distribution of the bullet which remains lodged in his brain to this day. Oh, and the arms dealer across the road, too, who happens to have sold the landmine which cruelly took Bazil's father's life, back when he was a miniature human male.
All the ingredients for another superlative, soulful farce are in the pot, make no mistake - perhaps there are even a few too many of them - but in the end, and let it be said this movies bears one of Jeunet's tighter runtimes, I was glad Micmacs was over. I was glad to have seen it, at long last, but alas, the actual fact of it left me a little crestfallen. Left me wondering, come to that, whether my heart had hardened into a wizened old nut in the years between this and Jeunet's last engagement.
Take me at my word: it hasn't. I was nearly bubbling the next night, watching Modern Family - another farce! Of a whole different breed, agreed. So why the long face when it came to Micmacs?
I'll tell you why. It was the shenanigans: they were what did it. The hiding in the fridge; the Middle East hijinx; the labyrinth of trash Bazil comes to live in after his head happened upon a bullet in flight... all of it so overt, I felt, as to rob the heart-warming whimsy key to all of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's cinema of any sense of innocence or spontaneity.
The contortionist exemplifies everything that's a little too much about Micmacs. She's fun and she makes for fun, sure, but it seems fun is all she's made for - until a few minutes before the curtain comes down Jeunet appears to realise his mistake, and wraps in an awkward, if inoffensive romance there's been absolutely nothing to before.
The composition is characteristically beautiful, the mise-en-scene of Micmacs lush and indescribably verdant, the cast is fantastic to a one and the camera moves always with measure, and a skip in its step. In all my years there's never been farce so sophisticated and artful as this, for Micmacs is a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film, singularly so - with all the happy quirks and delightful idiosyncrasies such a description has come to entail. Yet with such controlled deliberation behind every motion - every prop, shot, set and speech - I dare say it feels altogether as if Jean-Pierre Jeunet has begun to ape his own cinema.
"To get even, it helps to be a little odd," proclaims the international one-sheet for Micmacs. Equally, in terms of evenness, it hurts to get a little too odd.