Posts Tagged ‘Quentin Dupieux’

Death, entropy, and the speed of light: everything else is relative. I am aware this is a fairly philosophical note on which to open another entry on a theoretically amusing film review blog, but so it goes. I actually suspect it would amuse and satisfy the French hyphenate Quentin Dupieux (described by one critic as a ‘writer/director/composer/editor/cinematographer/auteur/weirdo’) to learn that one of his films sent my into a metaphysical spin quite so early on; he seems like that kind of person.

Dupieux, you may or may not recall, has previously shared with the world a couple of – for want of a better expression, and better expressions really are wanting in this case – horror pastiches: Rubber, the tale of a sentient telekinetic tyre on the rampage in the south-west USA, and Deerskin, in which a man possibly in the grip of a midlife crisis falls under the sway of a megalomaniac jacket. His 2020 film Mandibles is, by comparison, a much milder and gentler affair; it’s actually much more mainstream. Needless to say, if you compare it with virtually any other two films from the last few years, this is not the case: the film is still roaringly bonkers, it’s just that the tone of the thing is much more accessible.

Gregoire Ludig plays Manu, a dimwitted small-time crook for whom things are not going very successfully – as the film opens he is sleeping on the beach. It is a rather lovely beach in the south of France, to be sure, but even so. Nevertheless, things show signs of looking up a little bit when a more successful acquaintance offers him a job – couriering a box from one place to another, no questions asked (a bit like a cross between Frank Martin from The Transporter and Frank Gallagher from Shameless).

Manu takes the job and soon runs into his old friend Jean-Gab (David Marsais), who is equally morally-flexible and not appreciably brighter. However, things take an exceedingly odd turn when the car Manu steals to carry out his mission in turns out to have something in the boot (putting the goods in the boot is a stipulation of the job). This is not luggage, or junk, or a kidnapped daughter of a Chinese crime-boss, or anything else you might expect to find in the boot of a car in the south of France: it is a giant fly, which has somehow got itself wedged in there. When I say ‘giant’, I do not mean ‘unusually big for a fly’; I mean it is the size of a large dog. (The fly still turns out to be unfeasibly cute, somehow.)

Now you or I would probably run a mile or call someone properly equipped to deal with an insect of improbable size, but Manu and Jean-Gab display the genius of the somewhat thick by instantly recognising this as a money-spinning opportunity in a very effective disguise. They hit upon the plan of training the giant fly to steal things for them. This involves abandoning the job they have taken on and holing up somewhere; needless to say this does not go entirely to plan.

Now you may be thinking ‘Oh, no, not another film about two small-time crooks in the south of France trying to train a giant fly to nick stuff for them,’ and I understand why this might be the case. However, things take another unexpected turn when they run into Cecile (India Hair), a well-off woman who lives locally, who (completely erroneously) recognises Manu as Fred, her old boyfriend from school. She immediately invites the pair of them to stay at her house along with her and her friends. One of her friends is Agnes (Adele Exarchopoulos), who – due to brain damage received in a skiing accident – is normally incapable of speaking at any volume lower than a shout. With this lot all in the same villa together, what are the chances of something outrageous happening?

Very high, obviously. It’s all just as weird as it sounds – the tone is set by the complete lack of surprise the leading duo exhibit on seeing a fly the size of a bulldog – but the insect itself is somewhat less central to proceedings than you might expect: it’s a device to propel the plot along more than anything else. The uselessness of Jean-Gab and Manu are the source of much of the comedy (the actors are, I am given to understand, a successful comedy duo in France); the eccentricity of the various characters they run into only provide more opportunities for comic weirdness.

In the end, the meat of this film is basically a farce about a mistaken identity and two idiots trying to hide a giant fly from their hosts via increasingly unlikely means. All of the Dupieux movies that I’ve seen have been funny to some extent or other; this is much more straightforward as a comedy than them, and probably funnier as a result. It revels in just piling on the absurdities far beyond the point of credibility. There’s an extremely game, high-volume performance from Adele Exarchopoulos, whom I’d only previously seen in quite earnest dramas – it’s probably a bit iffy to do jokes about people with long-term cerebral injuries, but the character is handled relatively sympathetically and the actress, at least, does not appear to be attempting a caricature.

You might reasonably wonder what the hell all of this is in aid of – Rubber, after all, was to some extent about the deconstruction of genre conventions, while Deerskin concerned itself with the peculiar intricacies of the middle-aged male psyche. So what’s Mandibles about? Well, I’m not sure it’s actually about anything beyond assembling the most ridiculous plot it can manage – although I suppose it does have something to say about the value of friendship, for the bond between the two leads is palpable and endearing (thoughtless and amoral people though they are). It may also have something to say on the topic of inviting long-lost friends to stay as house-guests, especially when you haven’t actually seen them for decades. Whatever it’s about, if indeed it’s about anything at all, Mandibles is a good-looking and enjoyable film, though undoubtedly a very silly one.

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What a pleasure it is to be able to visit the cinemas in and around Leicester Square once more – it’s like being let out of prison, even if doing so at the moment involves staggering through the streets of London rather like Edward Judd at the beginning of The Day the Earth Caught Fire. (Where can a person get a stillsuit when they need one?) Being able to see the big Hollywood releases is all very well and good, but the great all-song of cinema is incomplete without the quirky little themes and unlikely melodies provided by less mainstream fare you only find in independent cinemas.

With Quentin Dupieux’s Deerskin (F-title: Le Daim, which apparently translates as either The Deer or The Suede) we are certainly some way off the beaten track, drawn there, perhaps, by the star power of Jean Dujardin, who was rather famous around the world for The Artist a while back but has shown a creditable disregard for the siren song of American movies. Not that Dupieux is without a certain reputation of his own: in addition to writing and directing (amongst other things) 2010’s Rubber, the greatest film about a homicidal tyre with psychic powers ever made, he also had a sort of music career as the creator of Flat Eric and the Flat Beat (google at your peril: some things are best left forgotten).

As the film opens we find Dujardin on the road. He is playing an ordinary-seeming fellow named Georges, but it soon becomes clear he is perhaps not such an anonymous chap: stopping for a break, he abruptly decides to take off his coat (an inoffensive green corduroy number) and attempts to flush it down the lavatory, not very successfully. (There’s a story that Martin Fry of the pop group ABC once attempted to do the same thing with a gold lame suit.)

Anyway, the now-shirtsleeved Georges reaches his destination, where he is making a purchase from an old man. He’s buying a replacement jacket, made entirely of deerskin, and he seems absolutely delighted with it – despite the fact it is obviously too small and too short for him. Nevertheless, he coughs up more than 7000 Euros for the thing, receiving as a sort of bonus a small digital video camera.

Resplendent in his new jacket, Georges drives off to somewhere remotely Alpine and checks into a hotel, despite the fact his credit card has stopped working. Conning the staff into letting him stay on, he decides – despite a total lack of knowledge or expertise – to pass himself off as an auteur film-maker, and starts presenting himself as such at the local bar, where he befriends barmaid and aspiring editor Denise (Adele Haenel).

There is so clearly something not quite right about Georges that it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when he starts carrying on conversations with the jacket, supplying its contributions himself. It’s not even as if this is a case of a troubled man having found a friend, for the jacket has an ambition it wants Georges to help it achieve. Fortunately, Georges has his own dream, and – what are the chances? – the two things dovetail perfectly…

Yup, another tale of a man undergoing a mid-life crisis and forming an unhealthy co-dependent relationship with a psychotic piece of clothing: only from the director of Rubber could this really be described as a step towards more mainstream and accessible fare. At least it’s clear what this is: it’s a horror-comedy, or possibly a comedy-horror, albeit one with a very distinctive tone to it.

This is a real slow-burner of a film, which starts off looking relatively normal before slowly sliding into the realms of the truly bizarre. From the start it is completely deadpan, with perhaps the faintest touch of a knowingly tongue-in-cheek feel: as the story progresses and Georges’ behaviour becomes more and more outlandish, you’re increasingly aware that the story is completely ridiculous and implausible – never mind the farcical way in which Georges’ breakdown expresses itself, there’s the behaviour of all the other characters, and the mysterious non-appearance of the police or media (given a gory and substantial killing spree takes place).

And yet it stays very watchable and engaging, rather than becoming absurd to the point of complete silliness. This is mostly down to Jean Dujardin, who carries the majority of the scenes himself and brings an enormous amount of understated conviction to Georges: a peculiar and rather sad individual he may be, but he’s not unsympathetic, and it’s Dujardin’s portrayal of his vanity and cluelessness which really finds the veins of black comedy running through the film.

Helping very much is Adele Haenel, as someone theoretically sane but proving to be remarkably credulous as the film goes on and Georges’ tales of what he’s up to unravel. Unlike Dujardin, Haenel plays it entirely straight – or at least as straight as the material will permit – which just adds to the oddness of the film. Are we supposed to conclude that life in small-town France is so dreary she’s prepared to engage in a kind of folie a deux with Georges just because it offers the prospect of escape? (Possibly folie a trois if you count the jacket.)

Unfortunately, any resolution of all this is limited, at best: Deerskin lasts a brisk and peculiar 75 minutes or so and then ends, the story having come to an abrupt and largely unresolved stop. It’s not just another of the formal post-modern pranks which Dupieux inserted so many of into Rubber, as there is a vague attempt at conventional storytelling involved here (exposition is laid in well in advance). This doesn’t make the lack of closure any less unsatisfactory, though.

Oh well. I enjoyed Deerskin a lot more than Rubber, and frequently found myself laughing out loud at the sheer deadpan strangeness of it, mainly as manifested through Dujardin and his performance. This is about 75% of a really good film; the problem is not that the other 25% isn’t up to the same standard, it’s that it just isn’t there at all.

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Changes in the way films are partaken of have resulted in what seem, to me, like odd experiments in distribution. For me the life-cycle of a movie is that it’s trailed, then released to theatres, before coming out on DVD a few months later and then eventually turning up on TV a couple of years after that, thus maximising the makers’ profit margins. For many years, after all, describing a film as going ‘straight to video’ was another way of saying that either it was a failure or fatally lacking in ambition or credibility.

Nowadays the makers of some low-cost films seem to be taking a different approach, maximising the profile their publicity budget allows them and releasing their movies in cinemas (usually in a limited way), on DVD, and over the internet simultaneously. I can sort of see the logic of this, and I for one would happily make the journey to a cinema to see a new film simply because I enjoy the filmgoing experience – but, then again, I am a weirdo and fundamentally unrepresentative of normal everyday people.

Anyway, one of the films benefitting from this kind of shotgun release strategy is Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber, a… how on earth am I supposed to describe this film without sounding demented? I don’t know. Here goes.

In the deserts of the American southwest something relentlessly evil is stirring. These are the stirrings of a malevolent tyre, sprung suddenly to life. Possessed of a implacable hatred of all living things the tyre sets out on a rampage of bloody carnage, using its newfound psychokinetic powers to slaughter anyone who crosses its path…

Well, what can I say? It’s French. Actually, I haven’t come remotely close to doing Rubber justice as the film is much, much, much weirder than that brief synopsis suggests. This isn’t the laughing-up-its-sleeve gory B-movie spoof that it first appears to be (and which its advertising strongly suggests it is) but something much archer and more cerebral. Indications of this come almost at once as some of the main non-pneumatic characters appear and do elaborately inexplicable things, before one of them (Stephen Spinella) gives a speech to camera listing supposedly inexplicable things that occur in great movies. Things happening (or not happening) for no reason are a major component of style – or so the argument runs – and one should not therefore dismiss a movie in which – say – a tyre comes to life and goes on a killing spree for no reason, simply because it’s self-evidently nonsense.

And we still haven’t got to the heart of Rubber. The central tyre-on-a-murderous-rampage plot is simply a hook on which the film-makers hang a great deal of post-modern commentary about the process of making a movie and anticipating the audience’s reactions while watching it. Most of the characters in Rubber are either members of an audience supposedly watching the film, or characters in the story who are well aware of their fictional status.

Rubber‘s central thesis – that having an irrational story can work to a film’s benefit – is fatally undermined by the fact that its own deeply irrational story is the heart of a film which isn’t nearly as brilliant as it thinks it is. Most of the stuff with the tyre is actually a lot of fun and technically adroit – the skilful use of cutting and camera angles somehow manages to give the tyre a distinct personality, and if nothing else it’s a more engaging screen presence than Mark Wahlberg – and the scenes where it does things like checking into motels and taking showers are entertaining in a deadpan sort of way. But we’re constantly dragged off into post-modern wiffling and characters commenting rather predictably on the film they’re appearing in.

I’m not sure Rubber is actually a bad film – as a piece of avant-garde absurdist surrealism it has a certain arch charm, it has a few genuinely funny moments, and at least at only 76 minutes long it doesn’t outstay its welcome – but the way it’s being marketed is, to be honest, deceitful. ‘The best killer tyre movie you’ll ever see!‘ shouts the poster. Not a new device, to be honest – a few years ago I was describing Ghost Rider to friends as ‘The best Nicolas Cage as a demonic burning skeleton motorcyclist vigilante movie ever made’, but at least Ghost Rider really was a movie about Nicolas Cage as a demonic burning skeleton motorcyclist vigilante. Rubber isn’t really a movie about a killer tyre. It would probably be a lot more fun if it was. It’s an ultimately interesting film, but very hard to like. It’s not nearly as energetic, schlocky, and – above all – entertaining as it might have been had the makers had the guts to play the concept straight, rather than seeking refuge in postmodernism. A disappointment – but the advertising department’s as much to blame as the director.

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