A man and his friends come up with an intricate and original plan to destroy two big weapons manufacturers.

4
A French clown and his merry misfits make light work of Juenet's latest shenanigans

Apparently the title of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s vibrant new film lacks an exact English equivalent – loose translations vary between 'a mixture" and 'shenanigans". But with a name like that you don’t need to know what Micmacs means literally to sense the director of Amelie is in full wacky mode. That's despite a story about a campaign to undermine the French arms industry that in outline sounds very serious.

Indeed you probably don’t even need to read the subtitles or understand a single word of French to follow most of what’s going on throughout. It’s been clear since his first feature, Delicatessen (co-directed with former partner Marc Caro), that Jeunet is besotted with silent comedy and here it’s more obvious than ever.

Dany Boon is a hugely popular comedian in France best known here as writer-director and co-star of hit comedy Welcome to the Sticks. Here he plays Bazil, a man who survives a bullet in the brain (caused by a gun being accidentally fired) that might kill him at any moment. To remove it would be to risk turning him into a vegetable, reckons his brain surgeon.

Discovering the identity of the Parisian company that made the bullet, he falls in with a troupe of oddballs – best summarised as circus performers in want of a ring – including a contortionist who can fit inside a fridge, a human cannonball and a manufacturer of robot-like toys.

Together they set out to subvert the arms company, firstly by spying (in one inspired sequence impersonating office window cleaners), then setting out to pull the rug on an international arms deal, engaging in destructive pranks conceived on a spectacular scale, and publicly embarrassing and discrediting the corporate leaders. Revenge for not only the bullet in his brain but also the mine that killed his father in North Africa seems assured.

Working with co-writer Guillaume Laurant, Jeunet proves again that he’s the master of the elaborately set-up visual gag, each of which can form a sequence lasting several minutes. When he’s at his weakest, such as in his second film City of Lost Children (co-directed with Caro), these sequences appear more attuned to the rhythms of commercials and video clips than the needs of feature-length narrative.

This fondness for episodic construction is present in all his films but in Jeunet’s finest work – Delicatessen and Amelie – these scenes are more satisfactorily worked into a unifying dramatic story. That tends to be the case here too. While owing a debt to his late compatriate Jacques Tati and the Hollywood silent greats such as Chaplin and Keaton, Jeunet’s routines never appear as second-hand or over-familiar hommages. The sheer originality and inventiveness on display throughout Micmacs is consistently dazzling – and frequently very funny.

Amelie, while enormously popular both in France and around the world, was also the target of attacks at home for its nostalgic vision of a cosy, all-white Paris where immigration seemed never to have existed. Jeunet seems to have taken the criticism to heart, because here there are prominent black characters – both good and bad guys. His Paris this time is an artfully contrasted mixture of the super-modern – influenced perhaps by Tati’s Playtime – with the nostalgic, best encapsulated in a scene where our heroes trundle down the road in their cute old three-wheel vehicle alongside a slick urban train.

Like Baz Luhrmann, Jeunet is an anti-realist who loves nothing more than to remind you that you’re watching a movie. Here he takes that so literally that characters drive past – and even through – billboards advertising the film they’re in. He hardly needs that kind of self-referentiality. Though the humour’s target, the arms trade, is very real, not a second goes by when we’re allowed to forget we’re watching a movie. Which in this case is no bad thing.