The French absurdist Quentin Dupieux works fast — he’s made ten films in ten years — forcing his imagination to keep pace with reality while always trying to satirize it. Yet, as real life becomes more absurd, Dupieux has taken on a deliberately banal subject with Keep An Eye Out; the original French title (Au poste!) deliberately mocks the TV series The Office.
Consider the circumstance where a TV program about the mundane alters viewers’ perception of their political and psychological reality and has become a veritable television institution — turning human eccentricity into formulaic, sentimental self-deprecation. Cinema has the aesthetic advantage to transcend that formula, which Dupieux does in a conceit that combines the police procedural with bureaucratic protocol and the domestic sitcom. And he then steps over the edge into pure cinema.
That challenge partly explains Dupieux’s love of the outrageous. He starts with an apparent madman in a red speedo conducting an outdoor orchestra that’s playing Beethoven. He tangentially connects the lunatic’s arrest to a police precinct where Louis Fugain (Grégoire Ludig), a citizen reporting what appeared to be a bloody crime scene, is rudely interrogated by chief inspector Buron (Benoît Poelvoorde). Their interchange reveals tense office politics between cops (Marc Fraize as a one-eyed desk officer), and then Dupieux flashes back to explore the details of Fugain’s testimony.
The absurdist humor pushes everything to uncomfortable extremes: garish slapstick (where simple objects become weapons); irksome language habits (contagious utterance of the adverb “actually”); and psychological projection (Fugain’s remembered account includes his immediate boredom, conveying an innocent man’s panic and resentment so that characters he has just met become part of his recall).
Dupieux’s farce provides what’s missing from this “golden age of TV” and insipid streaming content. Keep An Eye Out — the American title proves a watch-word — is a cognitive farce in which we’re constantly required to rethink the circumstances before us. TV content merely wants to sustain our attention between advertisements, stringing us along on obvious jokes and predictable outrages. Dupieux daringly suspends time: Fugain notices clock faces that race ahead. The emotional gamesmanship between Fugain and Buron, two kinds of egotists, raises common-man suspicions about political authority (“don’t be rude,” the cop warns the citizen). These time shifts become the occasion for visually dynamic sketch scenes as in Christophe Honoré’s On a Magical Night and Alain Resnais’s still-astonishing art-house classic Last Year at Marienbad.
Unlike many contemporary content-makers, Dupieux clearly knows his stuff, resembling cinema’s other, most famous Quentin. These contemporaries share a generational juvenile fascination with violence and gross incidents. But Dupieux’s characters reveal idiosyncrasies that are original and recognizable rather than borrowed from movie archetypes. One particular moment that interrupts Dupieux’s insane, unnerving absurdism — clearly nodding to Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie — is so audacious, so bravura, it justifies itself.
That break in Dupieux’s presentation feels good; it exposes our fear of the absurd. Then we’re thrown back into it. After all, it’s 2021.