Whimsy: The Marmite Film Genre
There’s a certain type of Marmite movie I sneakingly love. It would have been the kind of movie I hated at 18, when I just wanted to watch cars explode and heads get cut off. It’s the whimsical movie, best exemplified by ‘Le Fabuleux Destin D’Amelie Poulin’, or as it was called in the US, ‘Amelie’.
For a film that features simultaneous orgasms across Paris and concerns a manipulative girl bullying a man into role-playing, it got a rough ride from some critics who misunderstood its central character – but whimsical movies are like that; some people discover that they’re simply allergic to them, or misinterpret them. I feel like the same way about movies like ‘Hitman’, or anything in which a big lug spends two hours stunt-rolling through windows and shooting people in the head.
Whimsy is hardly a new category; everything from ‘The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T’ to ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ counts. But it’s tricky to pull off. After ‘Amelie’, the TV series ‘Pushing Up Daisies’ attempted the same trick, and the result missed the mark. Paradoxically, whimsy requires toughness.
If you liked ‘Amelie’ you probably love the very dark and dystopic ‘Delicatessen’ (ripped off since by many commercials) and ‘Mic-Macs a Tire-Larigot’ (which features a scene from ‘Delicatessen’). ‘The City of Lost Children’, with its nightmarish image of dozens of Santas in a child’s bedroom, came from the same director but another Audrey Tatou film, ‘Mood Indigo’, failed to capture this sense of the absurd – clearly it’s a very hard line to walk.
Hurrah then for Jaco Van Dormeil, whose ‘Toto Le Heros’ directly inspired ‘Amelie’ and saw boys swapped at birth into the wrong lives. His brilliantly bonkers ‘Mr Nobody’ mixed string theory, a man who lives into the distant future and a thousand orbiting bicycles. So packed with clever ideas and so costly was it that it could only fail. Now comes his most endearing film, ‘The Brand New Testament’. In this, God is a miserable git living in Brussels who enjoys ruining everyone’s lives, so his kinder daughter sets off to locate six new apostles, including Catherine Deneuve (whom she unites with a gorilla). It’s one of the few films in which the entire world is changed by someone plugging in a vacuum cleaner, beguiling and moving.
Of course the great thing about whimsy is it often packs a moral punch in a silken glove. ‘The Brand New Testament’ is about the karma attached to understanding others, a concept which could never fly in Hollywood without buckets of sentiment. The film has somewhat pointlessly been accused of blasphemy, but isn’t at all; Van Dormeil is interested in creation myths and our ability to change our fates.
I was also the sole person who liked Charlie Kaufman’s expansive, expensive flop ‘Synecdoche, New York’, which had a disturbing dream logic to it. Similarly, I enjoyed ‘Holy Motors’, which followed the surreal adventures of a millionaire adopting different disguises, and featured, for no reason at all, this music break in the middle.
At the extreme end of the scale is Gasper Noe’s ‘Into The Void’ in which a young man dies of a drug overdose and spends the whole film floating outside his body. The French are best at whimsy; ‘Gregoire Moulin Contre L’Humanite’ is about goats and football and fate, but the only British entries I could think of are ‘Bunny and the Bull’ (two mates go across Europe without leaving their apartment) and the charming ‘Skeletons’, in which psychics visit door to door and one turns Bulgarian.
Which would bring us, by following a whimsical train of thought, to Emir Kusterica and films like ‘Black Cat White Cat’, less pure whimsy perhaps than satire and madness. Central European whimsy, perhaps. His films also have great soundtracks.
As do Wes Anderson’s – he’s probably the only US purveyor of the whimsical I can think of, but is there a more endearing film than ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’? A career-best from Ralph Fiennes and a sumptuous (and very European) set of visuals in this wedding-cake of a film.
I can see that it’s really an acquired taste, and one that rarely clicks with the mainstream, but I’d rather see these than the morally repugnant gun fetishism that tends to clog multiplexes. All other whimsical films welcome!