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As the first film from the director of “Amélie” in nearly a decade, “Bigbug” is kind of a big deal. Sadly, it’s also a big disappointment — easily the most obnoxious Netflix original in some time, owing to the company’s trust in a director whose overactive imagination demands some kind of boundaries.
At precisely the moment pandemic-confined audiences want to get out and breathe fresh air, Jean-Pierre Jeunet gives them a suffocating scenario in which a squabbling French family is trapped in their retro-modern home with several android assistants. The result is an aggressively unfunny look at human-robot relations in a garish, cartoonishly rendered future — one in which all the houses look exactly the same on the outside, but are maintained by eccentric AI indoors (where the film spends 98% of its time).
In “No Exit,” Jean-Paul Sartre surmised that “hell is other people.” In this zany sci-fi riff on that idea, the tortures of lousy company become all the more acute when you throw in a few robots.
Locked together when this glitchy smart home’s automated doors refuse to open, the off-putting and clearly incompatible human characters consist of exasperated divorcée Alice (Elsa Zylberstein) and oblivious new beau Max (Stéphane De Groodt), stuck with ex-husband Victor (Youssef Hajdi) and the nitwit secretary (Claire Chust) for whom he dumped his wife, all crammed indoors with their busybody neighbor (Isabelle Nanty) and two slang-spouting teens (Marysole Fertard and Hélie Thonnat). That’s more than a full house, but add to that a handful of robots/devices — all of which want to be human in a lame running-joke subplot — and hell is being forced to watch “Bigbug.”
Jeunet starts with an amusing idea of where “progress” might take humanity, loading the film with potentially clever gizmos and jokes — like the elaborate kitchen contraption used for serving boiled eggs, which suggests a 1950s-era notion of the kind of neato innovation the future might hold, or the next-door neighbor’s accident-prone dog, Toby, which has been cloned at least half a dozen times. If Jacques Tati dropped acid, or Rosey the Robot suddenly turned on the Jetsons, it might feel something like this.
Back in the early ’90s, Jeunet burst onto the international scene with a pair of dystopian dark comedies, “Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children,” that made him — along with then-collaborator Marc Caro (who conceived the rusty, recycled bric-à-brac aesthetic of those two twisted fairy tales) — among the most exciting new auteurs of his generation. The duo split when Hollywood called with an offer to make an “Alien” sequel, which Jeunet wound up doing alone.
Any fear that the director might be nothing without Caro seemed to be allayed by the hyper-adorability of “Amélie,” a pop-styled success that still ranks as the top-grossing French-language movie in the U.S. But there’s a fine line between that film’s infectiously kooky appeal and the allergy-inducing cutesiness of his subsequent work — not that many people stuck around for the ride. It’s been steadily downhill for Jeunet ever since, hitting rock bottom with the English-language “The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet,” an earnest but forcefully twee portrait of implausible precocity that was all but buried by its hostile U.S. distributor, Harvey Weinstein.
“Bigbug” should’ve been Jeunet’s comeback. So many of his visual signatures are there, carried out by his regular team: the loud floral-print costumes and deliberately kitschy production design (decorated in shades of orange sherbet and key lime pie); the exaggerated acting style; the added distortion of pushing a wide-angle lens uncomfortably close to a character’s face (in this case, the fluorescent green eyeballs of the latest-model Yonyx security robot) or down poor Toby’s throat.
Alas, “Bigbug” could be a career killer instead. After this, who will want to make a movie with the director of such an unwieldy eyesore? What we’re dealing with here is another case of Netflix backing a name director’s back-burnered passion project (which no one else wanted to produce, and which probably never should’ve seen the light of day). In certain countries where Netflix operates — France being a prime example — the streamer is obliged to create a minimum amount of local content. So why not partner up with some of that region’s most respected auteurs?
Problem is, how do you tell someone like Jeunet what to do? Creative freedom is essentially the most attractive thing Netflix can offer, especially after the frustrating experience the director had with “Spivet.” In theory, “Bigbug” will get worldwide exposure on Netflix (the U.S. version defaults to English, though the dub is so bad, it’s worth switching over to the original French), but I doubt many will be able to stand more than nine minutes — that’s about the point when Toby pukes up the drone he swallowed, and a full hour before a potentially lethal Yonyx (François Levantal) drops in, looking like a cross between a de-helmeted Robocop and the mad scientist from “The City of Lost Children.”
By then, the plot has become so convoluted — a Mardi Gras string of brightly colored gags with minimal narrative continuity between then — it’s not at all clear what’s going on. Maybe Jeunet intended this as some kind of kiddie movie, though the alarming number of sex jokes suggests otherwise (with French filmmakers, you never know). Who else would enjoy “Home Alone”-like antics, where humans use hand mirrors and deep-frozen dirty laundry to fight back against a hostile Yonyx? Meanwhile, back in the “giga-behindawaxx” real world, we have a far more effective tool: the remote control.