When Big Fish came out, it occurred to me that Tim Burton and Jean Pierre Jeunet were both mining the quirky cinematic space of magical realism, but that Jeunet was more adept at making style and story serve one another.  Jeunet was telling stories that required a cast of misfits, poets, romantics, and tinkerers and he put those characters and their tics to good use.  Micmacs is just the opposite–a film full of ingenious contraptions and oddball characters that never works to tell a story as engaging as Amelie or City of Lost Children.  It may be too early to tell, but have we lost another pioneering filmmaker to the crippling weight of his own style?

Burton’s films turn me off immediately now. From the first publicity photo to the final trailer, I feel like I’ve seen everything that a movie like Alice in Wonderland is going to throw at me before–in another Tim Burton film.  We’ll get spirals and checkerboards and Helena Bonham Carter and it’ll all feel so stylized and manipulative that it won’t hold together.  Burton is a creative genius and an inventive designer with a signature style, but he seems to have lost some of the storytelling chops that made his early films good.  Even though it looked fantastic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a disaster because the way Burton and Johnny Depp brought Willy Wonka to life was all wrong.

From Beetlejuice to Wonderland

Terry Gilliam seems to be in the same rut lately.  It’s easy to describe The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus as “pure Gilliam” but that’s only partly-right.  After all, in The Fisher King, Gilliam earns his catharsis by building up three-dimensional characters in a real world where the fantasy only serves to parallel reality.  In Brazil, he creates such a wonderfully satirical version of reality that we never have to accept the characters as anything more than archetypes.  When Gilliam’s films work, it’s because they are completely unreal or because they are grounded enough in reality that the fantastical elements help the story come to life.  Contrasted with those films, Dr. Parnassus feels like such a let-down when it fails to produce characters in the real world that we can root for, and when it uses the fantasy world of the Imaginarium as a cheap metaphor and escape.

From Fisher King To Parnassus

With Micmacs, Jeunet has done the same thing.  The film plays like a two-hour version of those Stella Artois commercials that roll before movies at Landmark theaters.  We get a strangely disorienting sense of time, a dusty orange-hued version of the world, some weird characters who don’t say a lot but whose actions are amusing, and then the whole thing ends with an absurd chuckle, but that’s it.  A documentary about the production design would probably have held my interest more because all of the kinetic sculptures, costumes, sets, and visual quirks were great.  I want to see a movie about that little guy who makes automotons in the junkyard.  I even think that a serious film about a mime and a contortionist forming a strange and difficult romance would be good.  But Micmacs isn’t any of those things.  Instead, it’s a wonderful collection of images and ideas that don’t hold together to tell a story.  Even the much-maligned Alien Resurrection put Jeunet’s sensibilities to better use.

From Lost Children to Micmacs

I find all of this disheartening because the trend seems to point out that filmmakers with a great visionary style don’t make good storytellers after a while.  Maybe this is more of a problem in the often-twee world of fantasy films and magical romance than it is in other genres.  Zack Snyder seems to be rolling along just fine with his patented style, but a film like 300 has such a basic through-line that Snyder is not burdened with the kind of pyschological and emotional nuance that made Jeunet and Gilliam’s best films–great. 

I hope that Micmacs is just dip in the road for Jeunet, and that he’ll be able to put his considerable talent and vision to better use again on his next project.  At the same time I fear that like Gilliam and Burton before him, Jeunet will slip away into a world of self-reference and unrestrained stylization where the things that really make stories come to life are forgotten.  If that happens, can it be long before we are lamenting the de-evolution of Guy Maddin?