Sci-fi stories love to fantasize about the technological singularity, the moment in which artificial intelligence makes human civilization obsolete. Authors and futurists often will use this moment as a boogeyman, a cipher for what ails modern society in the present.
But then are some who understand technology is an outgrowth of human existence. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest film Bigbug is a French sexual farce that tackles the singularity while wrestling with the notion of what differentiates us from the machines. What makes us human?
Jeunet also toys with the idea that our reliance on technology will be our downfall. Not because we will become lazy, are too reliant, but because we will cede authority to them. Jeunet and his co-writer Guillaume Laurant imagine a world where everything is very much the same, only now civilizations are more automated.
Bigbug is not a dire warning so much as a heartfelt plea. Far from an “us versus them” mentality and much like Matrix: Resurrections, both Jeunet and Laurant are interested in redefining who exactly “us” might be, and in that the question of what makes us human. If this all sounds odd and a little offbeat, that’s because it is.
It’s easy to misread Bigbug as just an overtly stylized, tonally irregular, typical warning about the dangers of the over-reliance on technology. Except, the oddness is vital; it allows for the strangeness in our behaviors to be reflected on. Not to mention, of course, that the world feels odd; it’s the future, and there’s a strange sense of recognition of familiarity mixed with the exoticism of what we know is possible.
Never mind that Jeunet and Laurant plop us down smack dab into the middle of the action with no explanation of how anything works. Alice (Elsa Zylberstein) is on a blind date at home with Max (Stephane De Groodt), his son Leo (Helie Thonnat) sits nearby, being forced to come along. Meanwhile, the house robot Monique (Claude Perron), who looks as human as anyone else except for her movements, observes from the kitchen.
Their date is soon interrupted when Alice’s ex-husband Victor (Youssef Hajdi) shows up unannounced with his new girlfriend Jennifer (Claire Chust). The two are on their way to an exclusive luxury island resort to get married, Victor and Alice’s adopted daughter Nina (Marysole Fertard) in tow. If that isn’t enough, Alice’s busybody neighbor Francoise (Isabella Nanty) shows up to add to the growing crowd.
Soon, they will all be trapped inside Alice’s house. The sweltering heat and rising passions threaten to consume them as they go from trying to get into each other’s pants to trying to break free from their robotic-induced sauna of a prison. The robots look on bewildered, bemused, and hopeful that soon they too will be counted among the ranks.
Refreshingly Jeunet and Laurant, unlike so many others, realize that technology is generational, meaning there are a variety of robots with varying designs and intelligence. Einstein (voiced by Andre Dussollier) is a wire mechanized head designed for amusement but seems to be the head, figuratively and literally, of the house robots. There is also a tiny robot that once belonged to Nina. It has a more straightforward design and program, but it still works and Nina still treasures it.
While that may be the plot of the movie, it is by no means what the film is about — or, at least not entirely what the movie is about. For you see, the domestic robots inside the house have trapped the humans partially for their protection. Outside Yonyx (Francois Levantal), a robot with a steel body but a human face, calling to mind the image of Robocop without his face mask on, is possibly staging a coup. Yonyx is a company and a brand of artificial intelligence. The Yonyx robots have become a force of the government, an automated police state capable of automatic debits, filing charges, and handing out sentences, often in one conversation.
Underneath all the sexual frustrations and sprinkled in all the slapstick attempts to get out, Jeunet shows how easily we give into and create authoritarian situations in exchange for creature comforts. Interestingly, neither Jenunet nor Laurant believes art will save us; although they do believe art has its place, it’s in the way of expressing oneself.
A popular television show called “Homo Ridoclus” shows naked humans in constant peril or being forced to perform humiliating acts, usually at the hands of the Yonyx. The humans sometimes mention how sad it is, but necessary, as often the people seen in this show are poor and need the money. Later on, a Yonyx visits the house. They force Alice and the others to be in an episode of the show as payment for fines incurred for their disobedience.
The books that Alice loves to read and the art Max hosts on his website have little to no bearing on the world around them. Climate change haunts the background of Bigbug. The heat both inside and outside is overwhelming and affects the computers. Yet, the people seem to care very little and merely complain of a hassle when the robots don’t function properly. One of the characters even mentions Nina is a refugee from the Netherlands, now underwater.
Humans have done such a good job adapting that they’ve stopped trying to fix the world and now merely figure out how to fix the things that amuse them. None of this is subtle but could easily be ignored simply because of how oddly the humans behave. The humans may be foolish and crass, but Jeunet can’t help but love them all the same.
Bigbug looks too shiny and artificial, but it’s offset by how much of a mess the humans are. Angry, sweaty, half-naked — Jeunet doesn’t cast movie stars so much as normal-looking people. Thomas Hardmeier’s camera swings about, as acrobatic as one of the many drones or other domestic robots in the house. But the wild camera movements never feel jarring and consistently enhance the oddly sensual slapstick demeanor of the film.
Hardmeier goes for a sense of artificiality yet gives them a sense of texture that allows tactile awareness to blossom throughout the movie. The broadness of the tone belies the complexity underneath the story. Not all humans are good, and not all robots are evil. The crux of Bigbug is humorous nihilism.
But it comes from understanding how humans relate to them today. Far from being an old man shaking his fist at passing clouds, Bigbug shows us how vital connection is regardless of if the connection is between humans and humans, robots and robots, or humans and robots. The same foibles that plague us will also haunt our creations.
The Yonyx, for example, aren’t tyrannical dictators. In fact, they seem to be petty bullies who enjoy pushing people around simply because they can. They even seem to be bigoted towards other inferior robots and enjoy demeaning them.
Jeunet and Laurant understand that artificial intelligence, more than being some objective mechanical vice of reason, is at its heart a reflection of who we are as a species. The good and the bad, our hopes and dreams, and the poison of our hatred and bigotries. The other robots’ desire to protect the humans comes from their desire to be human, certainly, but also to care and be cared for in return.
Bigbug is about the singularity, yes, but Jeunet uses that as a way to explore our humanity. He uses the robot’s desire for humanity to show our desire to be loved. The facades we put on for physical intimacy, and the beauty of our imperfections are masked by our desires to be desired. The human soul may not exist, but Bigbug explores how the many ways of trying to understand what a soul even is, is part of what makes us human, microchips be damned. The desire to understand the world around and inside us is our defining characteristic; everything else is just a distraction.
Images courtesy of Netflix
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