One of the more delightful side effects of Netflix spending ungodly amounts of money producing in-house Originals is that they often fund dream projects for established auteurs who’re struggling to adapt to a post-MCU movie industry, where every single production has to be either a multi-billion-dollar tentpole or an Oscars prestige magnet to be deemed worthwhile. There’s something wonderful about the likes of Scorsese, Fincher, and Cuarón finally enjoying total creative freedom and unrestrained access to a corporate checkbook, all for a profit-loss streaming giant that has no tangible plans to make short-term returns on those investments. It’s wonderful in concept, anyway. Despite sidestepping the creative & budgetary restrictions of the traditional Hollywood production process, none of these legendary directors have been doing their best work on Netflix. Mank, Roma, and The Irishman are all perfectly cromulent Awards Season dramas, but none can claim to match their respective auteurs’ creative heights in previous works made under more constrictive conditions. Netflix should be an auteur’s paradise, but somehow the work they’re platforming from cinema’s most distinct artists is coming out bland & sanded down in the process.
What I cannot tell about Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s first Netflix project is how much of its blandness is intentional. The basic premise of his sci-fi comedy Bigbug feels like classic Jeunet in that it’s a collection of oddball characters competing to out-quirk each other in a retro-futuristic fantasy realm. However, Jeunet abandons the lived-in grime of his usual schtick to instead try out an eerily crisp, overlit production design that recalls the Spy Kids franchise more than it does anything he’s directed before. It almost feels as if Jeunet is making fun of the Netflix house style with this cheap, plastic playhouse aesthetic, as it resembles the bright colors & bleached teeth of other Netflix Originals more than it does the sooty, antiqued worlds of films like Amélie, Delicatessen, or City of Lost Children. I don’t know how much credit you can give Jeunet for making a film that’s bland on purpose, especially since plenty of Bigbug‘s slapstick gags & shrill one-liners are 100% intended to be funny and land with a miserable thud instead. At the same time, Jeunet breaks up this single-location farce with totally unnecessary fade-to-black commercial breaks, reinforcing its production values as a TV-movie in an act of self-deprecation. Questions of how good, how self-aware, and how critical of its own straight-to-streaming format Bigbug is persist throughout its entire runtime. It’s undeniably the least idiosyncratic film in Jeunet’s catalog to date; the question is how much of its familiar, off-putting artificiality was the intention of the artist.
The truth is likely that Bigbug‘s plastic, sanitized production values were a circumstance of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and not a metatextual joke at the expense of the Netflix house style (a likelihood reinforced by a dire one-liner about a COVID-50 outbreak in the distant future). In the film, several mismatched couples are locked inside a futuristic automated home to wait out an A.I. revolution that’s raging outside. The humans in the house are all desperate to find privacy in lockdown so they can have sex. The home-appliance robots they share the space with are desperate to be respected as fellow autonomous beings, mimicking the humans’ shrill, erratic behavior in idolization. Both factions—the robots and the humans—must join forces to outsmart the fascistic A.I. supersoldiers that inevitably invade their prison-home, but the movie doesn’t feel all that invested in the terror of that threat. Instead, it works more as a brochure for fictional automated-home technology, like the retro-future kitsch of 1950s World’s Fair reels promoting far-out kitchen appliances. Treating this trapped-inside surveillance state premise as a thin metaphor for the limbo of COVID-19 lockdowns, Jeunet doesn’t stress himself out too much in pursuit of a plot. The setting is mostly an excuse for a series of one-off gags involving navel-gazing vacuum cleaners, short-circuiting dildo bots, and the ritualistic humiliations of Reality TV. It’s all extremely frivolous & silly, and some of it is even halfway funny.
At its best, Bigbug plays like The Exterminating Angel reprised on the set of the live-action Cat in the Hat. At its worst, it plays like excruciatingly dull deleted scenes from the live-action Cat in the Hat. I honestly don’t know what to make of that cursed imbalance, but I do know that it is at least a huge creative departure for Jeunet as a visual stylist. All Netflix-spotlighted auteurs have done their blandest, most overly sanitized work for the streaming behemoth, but only Jeunet has leaned so far into that quality downgrade that it feels at least semi-intentional. No one makes a movie this bizarrely artificial by accident – least of all someone whose work usually looks like it was filmed at the bottom of an antique ashtray.