Let’s start with the title because, at the end of the day, this helps set the tone for the film. This is called Micmacs in the English version. The full French title is Micmacs à tire-larigot. All languages have their nuances and micmacs is quite a pleasing slang word, suggesting in a faintly derogatory way, that we have some jiggery pokery going on. The usual translations will refer to some kind of underhand, perhaps even faintly illegal, chicanery or trickery. Except, in this instance, we depart from the mere hanky-panky (which has more of a sexual overtone), avoiding skullduggery because that might suggest some level of violence, and ending up in a scrapyard with a genuinely pleasing French artifice perhaps best captured in the more earthy English, “A shitload of trouble”.
So here comes the typically Gallic plot, i.e. somewhat subversive, tending to be dark, and inherently farcical. Having been deprived of his father by a misplaced landmine and finding a bullet in his brain courtesy of a freak accident during a drive-by shootout, inoffensive Brazil played by Dany Boon, is thrown on to the streets of Paris to fend for himself. Fortunately, he’s endlessly resourceful, able to mime his way to enough to eat even if pride prevents him finding somewhere to stay. Come the winter, lying on on the Rive Gauche is not going to work. But he’s rescued by Slammer, an aged criminal played by Jean-Pierre Marielle and inducted into the French branch of the Wombles who make good use of the things everyday Paris folk leave behind and live in a warren under a scrapyard. Here there’s as engaging a bunch of misfits as you could hope to find. The female side represents necessary mothering skills (Yolande Moreau serving up fodder from her indoor BBQ), Julie Ferrier’s ability to double up as the chiller cabinet in a fridge, and Marie-Julie Baup with her instinctive grasp of numbers. The male side contribute Dominique Pinon’s ability to fly further than anyone else as a human cannonball, Omar Sy’s fluency in idioms and complete rubbish (acting not unlike Stanley Unwin but more coherent if you’ll forgive the paradox), and Michel Crémadès’ manic skills rivalling W. Heath Robinson, recycling to make sophisticated animatronic fantasies out of society’s cast-offs. Needless to say that, once they are motivated, these Wombles are also organised, work as a team, and utterly devious.
It’s Brazil’s arrival that offers them the chance to bond into an elite squad of urban vigilantes when our hero sees the chance to finally get an accounting from the two armament companies that respectively supplied the fatal landmine and bullet. As always happens in films like this, the two companies are sited on opposite sides of the same street and are run by pathologically competitive CEOs — André Dussollier whose hobby is collecting body parts, and Nicolas Marié who never gets Rimbaud and Rambo confused when the bullets fly. The plan is therefore to engineer the most elegant revenge possible using only the rubbish they have to hand. The first step is to provoke both companies into more obvious hostilities. As it happens, a team of three African mercenary leaders is in town to equip their forces with the latest weaponry. They are prepared to offer some cash up front and then endless blood diamonds when the President-in-waiting has nationalised the mines. No manufacturer can resist offers like this.
Now comes the plot, so precise with every cog and gearwheel meshing into place. The whole comes as a blend of sight gags, outrageous verbal prestidigitation, and some deeply cunning manoevres. Take the first need — to take the real African mercenaries out of the picture. You need some drugs to plant on them. You know where a dealer keeps a stash of something narcotic, so you must distract the dealer and his minder, get into the hallway, seal the mailbox, pour water into the box and float up the packet. Then all you need is a sausage and the ability to talk a police dog into barking at the Africans after you have planted the now dry plastic package into a convenient pocket.
Then when you want to persuade our two CEOs to confess their villainy, you remember all those Mission Impossible capers where the target is encouraged to believe in one reality whereas the situation is completely different. Given the quality of our team, you can imagine what they come up with when all they have is the contents of a scrapyard and their own twisted ingenuity.
In every respect, director and scriptwriter Jean-Pierre Jeunet has contrived a masterpiece with his fellow writer Guillaume Laurant. I note with sadness the English slogan for the film is better than the French. “It’s better to be odd if you want to get even”. In our fantastical world of perverse values where armament manufacturers can be lauded and courted by top politicians, it’s refreshing to find a film prepared to unleash a blast of destructive whimsy to bite the hand that arms our own soldiers and those of our enemies so long as the price is right. Although the humour swings wildly from the crude to the sophisticated, and the targets for satirical reinvention are moving, this is the kind of film you might want to see twice — catching all the jokes and visual elaborations the first time round is a challenge.