A delectably deadpan lesson in visual mastery in the service of genre-blending silliness, “Atomik Circus” rates an A-plus as a B movie. Warped and energetic tale of an escaped convict who reaches his backwoods sweetie in a bayou outpost just as hostile forces from another dimension drop in, is unclassifiable but grippingly comic from start to finish. Co-helming their first feature, the Poiraud brothers, who hail from comics and advertising, earn instant cult status with this cozy mix of unconventional humans and special effects, on the order of “Swing Blade” meets “The Invaders.”
When a motorcycle stunt goes awry, James Bataille (Jason Flemyng) is sentenced to 133 years in prison. He was only trying to impress local singer Concia (Vanessa Paradis), whose father, Bosco (Jean-Pierre Marielle), owns the small town of Skolett’s cabaret and bar. James escapes and heads straight back to Skolett shortly before crass music impresario Allan Chiasse (the inimitable Benoit Poelvoorde) is forced to stop there for repairs to his beloved vintage sports car.
But all business is on hold in anticipation of the big talent contest that will pit Concia against other eclectic townsfolk, including unflappable Brody (co-scripter Vincent Tavier) whose dog Toby’s bite — in the dental sense — is actually worse than his bark. It would be unfair to reveal more except to say that perfs, production design, music and lensing conspire to create and sustain a self-contained universe that feels familiar yet altogether original.
Thanks to helmers’ finely honed comic book sensibility, the most extraordinary developments and the strangest of landscapes are presented in a matter-of-fact register. Lots of hand-held and low angle shots communicate rock solid visual assurance.
In her first film role since Patrice Leconte’s “The Girl on the Bridge” in 1999, Paradis — who sings several spirited musical numbers — proves yet again that she’s a screen natural in the best sense of the word. Flemyng, speaking excellent French, is a resourceful wronged man it’s easy to root for as the obstacles just keep on coming. Poelvoorde retains his crown as Belgium’s gift to off-kilter character acting. Supporting ensemble is a delight.
Most of the leading visual effects houses in France contributed to pic’s distinctive look, craftily embellishing footage shot primarily in Portugal and Germany.