The fact that “Amélie” director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s first movie in nine years is quietly being dumped on Netflix without festival play or advance press of any kind after Jeunet insisted that he would only partner with the streamer as “a last resort” is really the only review you should need when it comes to “Bigbug,” a genial but excruciating sex farce about some horny French people stuck in a house together during the robot apocalypse of 2050 (mark it on your calendars). And yet — as this feature-length cluster headache makes perfectly clear — humankind has already surrendered itself to the mercy of our corporate machine overlords, meaning that even the most exasperated critic has to pump out at least 600 words just to convince the tiny God-king inside the Google algorithm not to banish their content to the elephant graveyard that is page two of the search results. So let’s get on with it.
A filmmaker whose breakthrough successes (“Delicatessen,” “The City of Lost Children”) don’t entirely diminish the feeling that he was put on this earth to make one particular movie about a pixie-like waitress in Montmartre, Jeunet has always had a rather over-cranked sense of humor — more palatable when tempered by pathos than when inflamed by spectacle (“Alien Resurrection”) or satire (“Micmacs”). Here, in a vision of the future so broad and cartoonish that it makes “The Fifth Element” seem like “Solaris” by comparison, Jeunet’s tin-eared comic instincts are front and center for almost two full hours of singularity-driven schtick.
The result is a forced smile of a movie that celebrates human foibles with a degree of sincerity that only Skynet could appreciate. Save for dashes of Jeunet’s bespoke visual flair and an enthusiastic cast of actors whose go-for-broke performances scream for stronger material, “Bigbug” doesn’t resemble a late-career misstep from a beloved auteur so much as it does the product of a neural network that was simultaneously forced to binge-watch “The Terminator” and “The Dinner Game” until it spat out a shooting script. (The actual screenplay is credited to long-time Jeunet collaborator Guillaume Laurant, whose recent work includes Netflix’s brilliant “I Lost My Body.”)
If that doesn’t sound like a recipe for disaster, “Bigbug” is quick to auto-correct your expectations. Set in the suburbs of a generic city that appears to have been inspired by the retro-futuristic diner from “Attack of the Clones,” the film almost exclusively takes place inside the house that eager divorcee Alice (Vera Farmiga look-alike Elsa Zylberstein) shares with her teenage daughter Nina (Marysole Fertrard) and the fun collection of antique mechas that she keeps around in favor of the sophisticated — but terrifying — new models produced by the Yonyx Corporation. The most advanced of Alice’s metal guests is a nanny android named Monique (a wonderful Claude Perron, nearly making this movie work through willpower alone), who spies on her owner’s latest lunch date with more genuine interest than most robots would muster. It’s through Monique’s eyes that we watch a slimy single dad (Stéphane De Groodt as Max) put the moves on Alice, as metrics like “sincerity 3%, sexual urge 86% and “erection 100%” flash on screen. By the third time Jeunet riffs on that same whimper of a joke, it’s already clear that we’re in for a bumpy night — and the robot apocalypse hasn’t even started yet.
A few more caricatures have to be mixed into the soup before that can happen, specifically Alice’s ex (Youssef Hajdi as Victor), his sugar baby Jennifer (Claire Chust), Max’s teenage son Leo (Hélie Thonnat), a voracious neighbor (Jeunet veteran Isabelle Nanty), her glitchy humanoid dildo, Greg (Alban Lenoir), and an eccentric array of robots so lovably amusing that they make it possible to see why Jeunet wanted to make this movie in the first place. These obsolete pieces of scrap metal will not be involved in the imminent uprising. On the contrary, they dream of being human, identify with Alice’s guests, and lock everyone inside her house for safe-keeping at the first sign of the Yonyx insurrection (a hulking François Levantal plays the evil robots with toothy glee, and remains scary even as he squeezes a few dollops of dry humor from the ice-cold intelligence of our new A.I. overlords). And so Jeunet’s wacky mishmash of sexually frustrated characters are stuck together with the only creatures on Earth who envy their flaws — the same flaws that human civilization has tried to engineer out of existence.
“Bigbug” is far too unfocused to offer an actual “take” on where things are heading from here, but the film’s general vision of the future is decidedly rooted in the past — less aetaverse than “Logan’s Run.” Laurant’s script is hung up on the dystopian notion that our society will optimize itself to death, with frequent references to banned substances (such as cheeses that didn’t offer sufficient nutritional value) proving typical of a comedy that flitters between unfunny details in lieu of an idea strong enough to hold them together.
If not for its perversive attitude towards corporate servitude and a genuinely solid COVID joke in the final minutes, the retrograde “Bigbug” would feel almost completely divorced from the dangers of the world we know today. Jeunet is more interested in tinkering with his garish world of tomorrow, as the director reserves just as much attention for Leo’s 2050 teenage slang (“we’ve been doofussed,” he says upon learning of the Yonyx’s plan), Greg’s twitching face, and the family dog who vomits up drones as he does for the house-robots’ motivating desire to become human.
Fortunately, those robots are much less insufferable than the people they’re desperate to emulate. Monique is their de facto figurehead as the most human of the group, but it’s the Mega-collectorwaxx — a motorized vacuum with a hidden gift for massages — who emerges as the breakout star. Aardman eyes on a Harryhausen body (aka the perfect man), Mega-collectorwaxx is so charming that it manages to steal scenes from a movie that’s giving them away for free. Robo-Einstein, which is exactly what it sounds like, is too verbal to work the same magic, but the intricate machine has been crafted with greater care than any of the script’s jokes, even if it lacks the sociopathic intelligence that guides the Yonyx.
It’s their imperfections that make Alice’s robots special and prevent them from becoming truly obsolete, just as it’s the foibles of the human characters that allow Jeunet’s film to find a measure of hope for the future. Humanity persists, even in the most terrible things we choose to create with it. It’s the one point this noxious farce makes all too well.
“Bigbug” is now streaming on Netflix.