For those who prefer their movies come with both feet planted on the terra firma of everyday reality, the name of Quentin Dupieux’s 2012 feature couldn’t be more right: It’s called Wrong.
In it, Jack Plotnick plays an ordinary fellow thrown into crisis when his beloved canine companion “Paul” inexplicably goes missing. Of course, “ordinary” is a term to be approached with caution in any universe of Dupieux’s devising. Our protagonist Dolph goes to work every day (though he was fired some time ago) in an office where there is incessant interior rainfall which no one seems to take much notice of. His gardener (the director’s frequent collaborator Eric Judor) informs him that a backyard tree has spontaneously transformed from palm to pine. And every morning Dolph’s alarm clock wakes him at the precise if bewildering hour of 7:60 a.m.
This hero’s journey eventually encompasses yea more strangeness, including encounters with an interspecies telepathist and self-help guru (William Fichtner), an amorous pizza delivery operator (Alexis Dziena), a most unconventional private detective (Steve Little) and oddly hostile neighbor Mike (Regan Burns), whose cross-country road trip provides a parallel narrative.
These inexplicable goings-on in a superficially bland, “normal” middle-America are of a piece with the events in Dupieux’s best-known prior film. Rubber (2010) was an fantastical exquisite-corpse-style narrative with a deadpan approach to a preposterous concept: An old car tire mysteriously comes to “life” in the desert and goes on a violent spree, wreaking a murky revenge on humankind by killing those unlucky people who cross its path (often making them explode into bits with its “mind”).
Ready-made for a cult following, these elaborate absurdist comedies perhaps make the most sense as movies that would be made (as opposed to, say, Transformers XI or Nicholas Sparks’ Stop Me Before I Love You Again) by a veteran French electronica artist perhaps better known by his musical pseudonyms Mr. Oizo and Flat Eric. His 1999 global hit “Flat Beat” “starred” a head banging yellow puppet in both the music video and a famous Levi’s commercial he directed. With Dupieux, “What came first, the sounds or the visuals?” is a chicken-or-egg matter; he began making music to “illustrate” his own images while still a teenager, and soon was directing videos for other artists’ tracks.
While he’s remained a busy recording artist since, it was a natural progression when in 2002 he created Nonfilm, a surreal whatsit (variously released in feature- and featurette-length form) wherein a movie-within-the-movie continues to be made even after the accidental slaughter of its entire crew. The likewise French-language Steak (2007) was a loopy parody of teen-movie conventions in which, true to form, the “high school” protagonists all seem to be pushing thirty or so.
Rubber and Wrong represented Dupieux’s entry into English-dialogue, U.S.-shot features. Since then, he’s completed two more: Last year’s Wrong Cops (only this filmmaker would overlap titles between consecutive movies not at all related by sequelization) features Judor, Plotnick, Marilyn Manson, Eric Roberts, a couple Twin Peaks veterans and others. It’s described as a “filthy” comedy about “disturbed” cops, as if Luis Buñuel made a version of RENO 911!. Reality, which premiered this fall at the Venice Film Festival, involves a cross-continental cast of comedy talents (including Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder, and Eric Wareheim of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) in a hall-of-mirrors nightmare riffing on horror movies and the filmmaking process itself.
Often editor, cinematographer and composer on his films as well as their director-writer, Dupieux has already amassed what is one of the most distinctive and eccentric bodies of feature work around. It is nothing if not a rarified acquired taste; for every viewer these movies delight, there will probably be a few whose reaction stalls at “Wha….?!”
Few filmmakers in any era have had the freedom to create such singular, serial oddness on a scale that’s admittedly not extravagant by commercial-cinema terms, but isn’t DIY-cheap, either. Whether you find their droll absurdities bewitching or baffling, Dupieux’s movies affirm that the medium is still a place that can accommodate pranksters, dreamers and weirdos.