As any minimally competent trailer watcher could tell you, Jean Pierre Jeunet’s MICMACS A TIRE LARIGOT (2010), in which a makeshift “family” of junk salvagers takes on and vanquishes a large, profitable armaments manufacturer, is a populist revenge fantasy with a leftist bent and a French attitude.
And yet, whatever one’s feelings toward our Gallic Allies, it’s unlikely an American viewer would decide against buying a ticket on the basis of the trailer’s unapologetic politics (what some might call sentimental socialism). After all, the plot– insignificant victim takes on powerful corporate malefactor with predictably satisfying results—is as American as buddy films or inane Summer blockbusters. Indeed, the converse of this plot is commercially inconceivable. (Would you want to see a comedy in which a maker of cluster bombs defies and defeats its critics and victims?)
So as a piece of marketing, the trailer is forthright in representing the film it heralds. It uses provenance (the director’s reputation and previous films), critical reception (blurbs from movie critics), and unembellished story elements to establish the art-house (with strong cross over potential) appeal of this film and it delivers the shots to prove its promise of visual invention and cinematic imagination.
What I’d like to discuss in this post is the trailer as a film text, especially the editorial decisions taken by the trailermakers, choices which add an aesthetic, moral and emotional dimension to the marketing information explicitly conveyed by copy, dialogue and scene selection.
Since editorial craft is the critical component of trailer artistry—naturalizing events, images and relationships that are thoroughly constructed and artificial– I propose we consider this trailer in terms of the four fundamental relationships that obtain between any two segments (or pieces) of film: graphic, spatial, temporal and rhythmic. At the risk of repeating myself, I’m suggesting that non-verbal information conveyed through the editing of the MicMacs trailer overdetermines, rather than subverts or contrasts the copy and scene selection. The editing is skillful, seductive and entertaining, as in the best trailers. But beyond our aesthetic admiration, this trailer deserves our critical attention for its formal practice, the manner in which it coordinates shots.
Let’s begin with temporal relations, which in this trailer present a chronological narrative from initiating incident/accident to likely resolution (revenge obtained!) Bazil is hit by a bullet fired from a dropped handgun. Surviving, though damaged, he meets an old man who introduces him to the MicMac clan, a discretionary family living beneath a junk yard where, according to the matriarch, “we recover and then we repair,” (a line which applies equally well to Bazil). He is welcomed into the “family.”
Discovering the manufacturer of the bullet which struck him in the head, Bazil asks whether any of his new “relations” wish to help him “get revenge.” Each of them votes, “yes” and the caper is on, involving surveillance, breaking and entering, explosives, disguise, out-smarted authorities and ultimate success, at least if the chorus of hooting laughter that concludes the trailer can be trusted. (From the synopsis, I learned that Bazil’s father was killed by a bomb manufactured by the same villainous weapons maker, and presumably his discovery is conveyed by flashback in the film. The trailer leaves out this expository nugget, however, suggesting rather that Bazil’s injury is sufficient cause to attack Les Arsenaux D’aubervilliers –The Auberville Arsenal).
Graphic relations (patterns of light and dark, line and shape, volume and depth, movement and stasis) are most salient in the editing of the MicMacs trailer. The sunburst backdrop of yellow and red stripes emanating from a central orb, (used for copy as well as a backdrop for bullets and bombs) is a central albeit ambivalent image, signifying light, life, rebirth but also the heat, shock waves and destruction of an explosion. In that image –which is etched on the bullets the arsenal makes– both sides of this age-old conflict are represented, their enduring tension given equivocal expression.
In the rotation of bomb, bullet, man in chair, dress and marionette rat, as well as the robotic movements of Bazil and his contortionist love interest, the trailer presents a ballet mechanique, the integration of organic and inorganic forms into objects of beauty and grace. Significantly, it is the MicMacs who reclaim the detritus of capitalist production, whether to restore their use value or to create original objects of beauty.
Throughout, the contrast between pointing up (cannon, human cannonball, raised hands, devil’s flames) and dropping down (hook into chimney, falling bomb, descent into the MicMac lair, Bazil’s tears, etc.), reinforces the conflict between underground and overlord, the marginal, eclectic, chaotic, creative, joyful, junk-yard existence of the MicMacs versus the airy, orderly, uniformed, profit oriented and death dealing world of the Aubervilliers Arsenal. Yes, we’re talking unsublimated class warfare. And in this trailer, as in this film, the rich and powerful don’t always win.
Spatial Relations (e.g, that obtaining between shots A and B, relating them through similarity or difference or development, and deriving from an underlying assumption of coexistence and the inference of a spatial whole.) In MicMacs, the usual relation of “up” and “down” is reversed, with the underground artisans—these multi-cultural scrap workers and junk-engineers—occupying the privileged position of sympathy and competence in their assault on the homogenous business men and generals, presented as paper pushing, money grubbing merchants of destruction, who inhabit light-filled suites far from the manufacturing floor.
The struggle between insurgent and dominant cultures is revealed in that simple distinction between above and below, with the underdogs fated to rise ethically and spiritually by rising up and destroying (or actively discomfitting) the destroyers.
There are several visual puns through which the spatial politics and ideology of the trailer are set forth: my favorite, the onomatopoetic “Boo” uttered by the bearded, Franco-African MicMac, a sound, a lip gesture and a signifier of fright, that initiates (or detonates, as a consequence of the Kuleshov effect) a series of explosions in the factories of the Arsenal. The polished receptionist is surprised and frightened (yes, the French too, fear the African “other”) while the audience is amused by the “joke” of the startling noise which is also a revelation of his presence (and, as my thesaurus reminds me, of “contempt”). The “boo” shot immediately succeeds a shot of the confused/curious Receptionist, although nothing in the lighting suggests that he is revealing himself to her. It’s just that contiguity defaults to causality or consequence (unless otherwise indicated), as a function of the way we read film texts.
Earlier, when Bazil is brought to the MicMac’s warren, he enters through a door marked “Tire Larigot,” which is an idiomatic phrase that means “pull to your hearts content” (often as a drinking metaphor) or “take as much as you’d like.” It’s a pun that refers simultaneously to “opening the door” –literally– and the warm welcome waiting inside and figuratively to abundance, satisfaction and excess. This is not the world of scarcity, private property and self-denial, which Bazil– once a lone, alienated observer (he managed a video shop); now, an active, integrated participant in life—has left behind.
In the 2:09 trailer, human faces and emotions play long, while the details of the revenge plot – the surveillance, the scheme, the explosions, the chaos of the plan’s unfolding—arrive fast and furiously. Why might this be? The obvious explanation is that the complexities of story are such that only a rapid presentation of images is possible given the relative brevity of the trailer. Moreover, in trailers, speed is shorthand for excitement and energy, which such a film would want to advertise. But we also read shot length as a proxy for importance, and in this trailer graphic design and copy, facial reaction and whimsical spectacle linger on screen, emphasizing feeling and emotion, human creation and consequence, the “heart” of the movie, over and against the plot details which, while essential, are nonetheless subordinate elements in the artistry and conception of an auteur like Jeunet.