The opening scene of Big Bug, the new sci-fi/comedy by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, opens with what appears to be a play about two Robocop-esque androids walking two humans on the street as if they were dogs. The humans act like dogs, as well, including a scene where one sniffs the other’s butt. We find out later that this is part of a popular television show called Homo Ridiculous that’s made specifically for robots. You’re either going to find this absurdly humorous or be left cold by it, and this kind of binary reaction is believe it or not part of Big Bug‘s odd, over-saturated charm.
The year is 2045, and humanity is leisurely to a fault. Robots handle just about everything, from every facet of the house to government bureaucracy to homeland security. When a robot uprising leads to a lockdown, seven people are confined to the home of Alice Barelli (Elsa Zylberstein). This includes her teenage daughter, her ex-husband and his new girlfriend, her new love interest and his son, and her next door neighbor Françoise (Isabelle Nanty). Alice’s in-home robots, including android maid Monique (Claude Perron), do their best to keep the humans safe as the tension gradually reaches a breaking point.
So here is something I’ll just drop right away to give you an idea of the tone of this film. Normally, when I write reviews I prefer to listen to the film’s soundtrack on my usual streaming service. Unfortunately, Big Bug‘s soundtrack isn’t available so as I type this I’m listening to the soundtrack to Amélie, the film Jean-Pierre Jeunet is most famous for, and the soundtrack to his military satire MicMacs that Big Bug‘s composer Raphaël Beau also scored. And let me tell you, if you combine the two, you get exactly the kind of energy this film is giving off.
That statement might be a good gauge of how you would respond to Big Bug‘s candy-colored whimsy and oversized emotions. There is very little subtlety to be had here. Even before the lockdown happens and everyone starts getting dramatic, it’s clear that the characters are just barely keeping in check a lot of Big Feelings. Once they get locked in Alice’s house, it’s only a matter of time before all these emotional time bombs go off, and when they do you’ll either think it’s a Freudian slapstick riot or just a little bit too much. Indeed, much like the scenes we see of Homo Ridiculous peppered throughout the narrative, the humans often act like trapped animals slowly giving in to instincts.
However, as amusing as these human animals may be, they’re only half the story. The other half belongs to the house robots, who are not only working to keep their humans protected but to understand what it means to be human in the first place. Unfortunately, they don’t have the best teachers; this is reality-show levels of hot mess we’re talking about. But it’s the ‘bots journey that actually serves as the most interesting part of the story, and it’s Monique of all the characters that often serves as the best audience surrogate through her ridiculously attuned sensors and deadpan heads-up display.
It helps that Claude Perron’s performance as Monique is one of the most interesting in the film, intentionally staking a claim in the Uncanny Valley and putting up a charming chalet there. Her precise facial movements, wide eyes, and Joker-worthy grin are both intriguing and off-putting at the same time. She’s even responsible for a bit that made me pause the film because I ended up literally laughing for a minute straight. François Levantal gives a very similar performance as a security robot called a Yonyx who appears periodically throughout the film, but his too-close-to-human approach comes off as sinister and dangerous in comparison to Monique’s well-meaning but oblivious demeanor. It’s a clever way of illustrating the robots’ relationship to humanity, especially since Monique is an older model manufactured well before the Yonyx came about.
That’s not to say that the humans aren’t interesting in their chaotic, overwhelming emotions. The longer the lockdown goes on, the more their masks slip and we see who they really are. Alice is probably one of the more intriguing cases, obsessed as she is with “antiquated” hobbies like…reading. Yes, really. In private, she likes to dress up like icons of feminine expression that she’s almost never even been close to experiencing in real life like Marilyn Monroe and Catwoman. She longs for a past she barely knew, and once the Yonyx comes to the house, she becomes the fiercest defender of humanity in the room. Elsa Zylberstein’s performance is a slowly unfolding flower, with the Alice we first meet coming off as timid and even a little pathetic, but slowly becoming fiercer and more passionate as the narrative goes on.
Isabelly Nanty’s Françoise is probably the other most fascinating human in the bunch. Initially coming off as a variation of the a more sitcom-ready nosy neighbor like Bewitched’s Gladys Kravtiz, it’s clear her gruff and relatively combative demeanor hides a lonely woman who can’t process the fear she’s experiencing. She’s less a blooming blossom and more a thawing ice queen. Halfway through the film, the cast is joined by Greg, Françoise’s robot…assistant, played to Himbo 3000 perfection by Alban Lenoir. He’s programmed to be utterly devoted to Françoise, and seeing her melt when he spouts his romantic declarations to her even as he seems to be malfunctioning is honestly endearing.
That’s not to say that the men of Big Bug aren’t interesting or that their actors don’t turn in good performances. They just seem much more predictable and, for lack of a better word, disposable. Alice’s ex-husband, for instance, doesn’t grow much over the course of the film. Her new potential beau is pretty transparent from the get go, so when his true self comes out it’s not a surprise. His son has some hidden depths that get brought up in one scene but never really discussed again. It’s curious that Alice’s cleaning robot — which resembles a miniature tank fused to a robot duck — has a more dynamic character arc than some of the human men here.
In the third act, the film takes a pretty dark turn that at first feels extremely sudden and jarring. After a little thought, it’s clear that that shadow side was always there beneath the surface; it just got brought to light with amazing rapidity. To his credit, Jeunet quickly re-establishes his stride, but in many ways the final third of the film feels like something entirely separate from what’s come before. The ending also relies rather heavily on what comes off as a literal deus ex machina (and some rather lackluster CGI), which is probably to be expected in a film about robots threatening humanity. It feels a little cheap compared to the relatively complex groundwork Jeunet and frequent collaborator and co-writer Guillaume Laurant laid prior to that.
Like its robotic cast, Big Bug is a highly binary film. It’s very much a love it or leave it kind of thing. It’s biggest running gag is an advertising drone featuring an enthusiastic model that is constantly flying by Alice’s house and suggesting products for whatever problem someone is currently having. It’s a bit that you’re either going to be fully on board for or get tired of after the third or fourth fly-by. It’s a highly specific combination of dystopian sci-fi, satire, and locked door existentialism, like Amélie mixed with Brazil and seasoned with No Exit. Personally, it pushes my buttons. As it were.*
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B
Big Bug is available to stream exclusively through Netflix.
*Johnny is not a robot and does not have literal buttons. As far as we know.