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Manuel de Layet [Celluloid 11.03.09] France movie review comedy crime

Year: 2009
Directors: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Writers: Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Guillaume Laurant
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: The Crystal Ferret
Rating: 5 out of 10

Basil lost his father to a landmine during the Algerian war, his mother to some sanitarium in the aftermath, and his childhood to St Peter’s Needle in some generic religious boarding school. Our story kicks in, thirty years later, with an adult Basil nearly losing his life to some stray bullet during a shootout on the doorstep of his video-rental store.

After quite a time in hospital and with the bullet still firmly lodged in his brain, he returns to his day to day life to find his apartment locked down, his property stolen, and his job gone. The only compensation he will get from the video store is the spent cartridge from his new leaded friend.

He will try and survive on his own in the street of Paris until spotted and incorporated into the weird family of ”Tire-Larigot” : A motley crew of life-scarred individuals living under a scrap yard in some troglodyte dwelling of rust and spare parts. With their help he will avenge his father’s death and his own predicament by bringing to their ends the arms dealers who sold both the landmine and the round.

That’s it for the pitch. Then the audience can be divided in two groups:

First group: You went there after living under a rock for the last 20 years, you’re as literate in cinema as the average layman and you were in search of some family entertainment. In this case you will find a nice and quirky family thriller with bits of slapstick comedy, inventive jokes, and running gags which are subtle and well rounded, set in a postcard Paris which is bright and sparkly, all nicely wrapped in the arty vision of Jeunet and his otherworldly yellow tints.

Now for the second case, involving everyone else, the picture is somewhat less flattering. I won’t say it’s a total and utter piece of unsightly trash, because it is not. But it’s nowhere a masterpiece, nor even something new or interesting.

There’s an incredible amount of cultural references from cult classics of literature, comic strips, and movies. You can even play “spot the original” while watching. Oh some Keaton! Oh Franquin! OOOOOooh some Chaplin fornicating with Hergé! Incredible that’s slang out of the Nickel-Plated-Feet Gang. The problem occurring in this case is that there are so many of them, you can’t even tell if there was a real script behind it, or if it’s just a copy-pasting of meme.

There are effective running gags and moments of comedy which perfectly fit a toddler’s attention span. The whole feel of the character design is, despite the movie being in our present time, post-war in a way your Grandma will find that “Youth these days still know how to dress properly”.

Do you see where this is taking us? Simple storyline, copy pasting of cult classics, a design fit for people from 7 to 77 years old. There is one type of movie making doing this every day but there's usually masala in it and it comes from Mumbai. The whole Bollywood feel is so overwhelming, I was expecting the cast to sing and dance on many occasions. Thankfully they don’t, they use little makeshift automatons to do it instead, and I don’t know if that’s any better.

I won’t say there wasn’t any potential in the storyline, but it’s drowned into such a syrupy conglomerate of happy clichés, the whole movie is melted into some old fashioned “image d’Epinal” (proverbial French referring to an emphatically traditionalist and naïve depiction of something, showing only its good aspects). Take Paris for example: greatest city in the world yes, but also a metropolis, the eternal city of grime, filth oozing from every gutter between the steady beats of Her concrete heart, She’s pictured as some Smurf village, all colorful and happy. How can anyone buy this? Suspension of disbelief has its limits. A clean underground? Streets without filth or derelict papers? Let’s ask the bums on the Seine banks if they feel privileged, because that’s what’s we're getting out of some scenes: Life in Paris is wonderful even as a low grade beggar. You even get some nice copy-pasting of some equivalent scenes from Chaplin’s works to emphasize the feeling.

Staying into the pastiche of slapstick comedy classics, you can do whatever you want; Danny Boon will never be Keaton. Thanks for trying, better luck next time. On the short but potent subject of the running gags, yes it’s funny when you have the sentience of a fern, but using them to build your plot around is clearly an insult to the viewer. Having the contortionist in a trunk to help the plot advance one time is ok, but the 5th time you’re clearly milking it.

Next on the milking tray is the whole character of Remington, a former ethnographer from Brazzaville. Now studying the life and habits of the “white man” he has taken unto him to speak only with idiomatic sentences and proverbs of the French language. It is funny 3 seconds, then the brain gives a nudge: “Psst, I know you shouldn’t use me but: Brazzaville is in Congo, French is their maternal language and is often stricter than ours…”

Every single thing from actors to settings and lighting is so covered in raspberry smudge I wanted to puke kitten and rainbows. I want something that makes me use my brain for a change. Is that so much to ask? Undoubtedly I was tricked by the director’s name into thinking this was a movie instead of a trip to Disneyland. Now that I think about it, there’s chimney dwelling scenes, the Great Capital overthrown by the sheer passion of the pure plebian hearts, and some maternal figure stepping in from time to time, it’s an un-assumed remake of Mary Poppins!

Now, seriously, the whole reversed Darwinism scheme is getting boring, an odd bunch of junk dwellers taking revenge on the Great Capital by bringing down the flagship of the weapon economy in the country. Wonderful, great, yes the bad guys are down, the ten thousand people that were working for them are now out of a job, but you avenged your father and that’s the only thing that counts. Same for the bullet in your head, it’s a better way to get back at the manufacturer of the round instead of the dumbass who shot at you. All I personally see here is petty revenge from underlings wanting to have a go at successful people. There’s nothing right or good about this whole scheme.

To be quite frank, I see enough petty people with twisted minds and modest means in the public transports, I don’t want to sit in the dark and see them frolic on screen. I find absolutely no poetic qualities in a garbage bin, nor in the threadbare pseudo-circus aesthetics portrayed. Jeunet built his career on that whole “revolt of the cockroaches” semantic field, indeed everything was interesting the first time, in Delicatessen, now it’s just a mental checklist: yellow light –yes, freakshow characters –yes, postwar-punk aesthetics –yes, inverted social Darwinism –yes, musical seesaw -yes, ok I can get out I’ve seen enough.

The final feeling is lukewarm. A specific lukewarm, the kind you get on your left foot when the prized poodle of your great aunt just forgot herself on it. This movie was like watching a pseudo-punk version of Mary Poppins, without the flair and the ingenuity of it's predecessors. Tag along with your kids and their baby-sitter. The kids will watch, and you’ll watch the sitter.

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