Sometimes, the best way to depict huge, earth-shattering events is to severely restrict the point of view. It’s cheaper to make a Shaun of the Dead than a World War Z, but narrowing the focus also recasts high-concept problems on a human scale, with human stakes. What filmmakers lose in spectacle by keeping the story small, they make up for in drama. Maybe that’s why Netflix’s Bigbug, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s French sci-fi comedy about a robot uprising, never leaves the confines of one suburban house. (Or maybe it was just a cheap way to make a film, especially during a pandemic.) Bigbug’s characters aren’t trying to overthrow their robot overlords. They’re just trying to get outside.
Bigbug is something of a comeback for Jeunet — his first feature film since 2013’s The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. Jeunet is best known for Amélie, a sugar-sweet romantic fantasy that charmed the world in 2001. But in the ’90s, with collaborator Marc Caro, he trained his whimsical eye and wide-angle lenses on more grotesque subjects, for the bizarre Alien Resurrection and the dark fairytale The City of Lost Children.
Before those, he earned cult acclaim for Delicatessen, a Rube Goldberg contraption of a movie exploring a sort of retro post-apocalypse through the inhabitants of a single, crumbling apartment block. Delicatessen staged the intricate, near-wordless slapstick of Jacques Tati in a messy Terry Gilliam fantasy world, and Jeunet’s camera dissected the spaces of the apartment building like a leering, untidy version of Wes Anderson. (Delicatessen is streaming on the Criterion Channel, and it’s well worth catching.)
With its confined location, antic ensemble cast, and dystopian vibes, Bigbug is the closest Jeunet has come in 30 years to the film that made his name. But under the skin, it’s quite different. It’s less of a silent film comedy and more of a theatrical farce, and though the ideas behind its sci-fi setting are more clearly set out, they don’t mesh so well with the action.
In 2045, humans have surrendered control of their daily lives to artificial intelligences and automatons, apparently out of sheer laziness. Even Alice (Elsa Zylberstein), a divorcee and retro enthusiast who owns actual books and practices writing by hand, is waited on hand and foot by a motley crew of robots: a lifelike android called Monique (Claude Perron), a handmade know-it-all called Einstein, and some aging domestic and child companionship models. A disembodied voice called Nestor operates everything in the house, from the air conditioning to the doors.
Alice is entertaining a horny suitor and his teenage son when she receives a string of unexpected visits: her adopted daughter (a refugee from the now-sunken Netherlands), her ex-husband and his ambitious fiancée, a garrulous neighbor and her “sports trainer” robot. The stage is set for classic farce when the domestic robots decide to lock this quarrelsome band in the house, claiming the danger level outside is too high. From snatches of TV, we gather that the Yonyx (all played by François Levantal), a new and sinister generation of androids that have started to replace humans in most functions, including humiliating people on game shows, have ground society to a halt and are trying to take over once and for all.
Confusion reigns, and not always in intentional ways. Jeunet, who co-wrote the screenplay with his longtime collaborator Guillaume Laurant, gets carried away with every detail: the design of bentwood robotic furniture, philosophical debates about paradoxes, and the grossly satirical media landscape of his world, where targeted ads hover outside the windows of the house and interrupt conversations with relevant purchasing opportunities. But it feels like he keeps losing sight of the big picture, the motors that should be driving the film.
The Yonyx are the antagonists, but it’s the domestic robots, led by Einstein, that engineer the lockdown. They say they’re protecting the humans from the Yonyx, and what they really want is to earn their trust, to be considered humans themselves. But their motives are a mess. The line between the robots that want to be loved and the robots that want to take over is neither clearly drawn nor completely erased, and it’s easy to lose track of who’s pulling the strings, which blunts the satire and breaks the engine of the plot.
As the lockdown drags on and the temperature rises — literally, because the AI has turned off the air conditioner — the humans bicker and snipe, indulging in petty lusts and jealousies. Every scheme they come up with to liberate themselves bounces off a wall made of their abject reliance on technology. They’re hardly a sympathetic bunch. The cast is game, but Jeunet goads them into a sweaty, bug-eyed overacting style that works better in a physical comedy like Delicatessen. In what amounts to a broad, high-concept sitcom, it’s grating. The film even flows like a sitcom, with slow fades between scenes as if for unseen ad breaks, and pauses for unheard laughter.
Bigbug has its pleasures, though. Some come from the performers: Levantal gives the relentless Yonyx a magnificently creepy grin, while Isabelle Nanty, as the neighbor Françoise, grounds every scene she’s in with an insouciant shrug, standing firm against a tide of silliness. Jeunet, for his part, still knows how to build a teetering pile of subplots and bits of business into a compelling climax. His visual flights of fancy are less suited to the digital realm than the practical FX of his ’90s work was: Bigbug has a colorful plasticity that isn’t fully convincing, and a busy clash of ideas and styles that comes from a lack of restrictions. Still, the film’s faintly ridiculous future abounds with delightful, quizzical little details.
It’s a good thing Bigbug’s action is contained to a single house. A vision as fussy as this, from a director who knows no restraint, might have been completely befuddling on a larger scale. Even as it is, Jeunet doesn’t entirely manage to land the laughs or bring his themes or characters into focus. There’s more than a hint of pandemic madness to the whole thing — the characters trapped in a house, slaves to their machines — but Jeunet seems to succumb to it more than comment on it. Bigbug’s garish and confusing world does linger in the mind after the credits roll, primarily because we’re only permitted to see a tiny slice of it. Trapped in the bottle, looking out, everything looks distorted and larger than life, but vaguely, scarily recognizable.
Bigbug is streaming on Netflix now.