Film & TV

Mandibles, a Comic Vision of Our New Dark Age

David Marsais and Grégoire Ludig in Mandibles. (Magnet Releasing)
Quentin Dupieux’s far-out French farce

Quentin Dupieux’s films aren’t classy enough to make the festival circuit, which is to their credit. Yet he keeps making them — quickly, cleverly, and always with admirable brevity. His new 71-minute Mandibles is another absurdist satire (like Keep an Eye Out and Deerskin) in which a group of characters — starting with two bums: tall, lazy Manu (Gregoire Ludig) and his short but more devious pal, Jean-Gab (David Marsais) — turn a shady money-making scheme into a wholly different outrageous exploit.

Manu and Jean-Gab hide their alternate plan from a petty crook named Michel-Michel, a repetition that recalls the classic 1937 film Bizarre, Bizarre, the American title for Drole de drame, the second feature by France’s legendary Marcel Carne (Children of Paradise) from a script by Jacques Prevert. In its most famous scene, two characters who try outwitting each other (played by Michel Simon and Louis Jouvet) distract their hidden motives through a verbal exchange of that double phrase, “bizarre, bizarre.” It became a touchstone of the golden age of mid 20th-century art-house cinema.

Dupieux gets bizarre, bizarre when Manu and Jean-Gab steal a car and find a huge, dog-sized fly in the trunk. They adopt the insect like a pet, then attempt training it to commit bank robberies. This twists the criminal premise past wild farce into surrealism. Eccentricities pile up through a series of extended accidents, surprises, and odd characters met along the way. (They loutishly commandeer the trailer of another social outcast played by Bruno Lochet, a modern dead ringer for Michel Simon.)

Perhaps Dupieux’s lack of reputation owes to his disreputable hypotheses. This cultural moment, where activist politicians resemble a Dick Tracy rogues’ gallery, hasn’t inspired much self-critical art. Yet Dupieux boldly insists on an unsettling exhibition of characters with barely contained antisocial impulses — that is, he condenses recognizable modern idiosyncrasies into absurdity.

At first, I compared Dupieux’s horror-farce Deerskin to the films of his American-named twin Quentin Tarantino for its satire of moviemaking mania and outré violence. But given Dupieux’s second interest in pop music and music videos, a better analogy can be made to Spike Jonze who frequently bases his film in the absurd. When Manu and Jean-Gab share slang, their word “Toro” means “cool — when we agree, or when we’re happy, or to say hello, too.” It recalls the folie a deux of Jonze’s private-world collaboration with Charlie Kaufman in Being John Malkovich.

In Jonze’s cinema of the absurd, political commentary can be deceptive. The problem with Jonze’s Her came from its romantic acceptance of Big Tech domination, yet its conclusion was unironic, unfunny, and dispirited: Joaquin Phoenix’s modern-man cipher fell in love with his computer operating system — a precursor to his Joker. In Dupieux’s absurdity, human behavior is not aleatory but reflects specific social and psychological realities.

Mandibles reaches just such a peak when Manu and Jean-Gab accept the hospitality of a mistaken high-school reunion. That’s when Adele Exarchopoulos (the easily manipulated sexual naïf of Blue is the Warmest Color) appears as Agnes, a chef contending with a psychotraumatic abnormality causing her to speak loudly without emotional modulation. Agnes’s candor cuts to the quick of polite linguistic manners — as well as Manu and Jean-Gab’s con. (They’re like prodigal sons in bourgeois heaven which Dupieux shoots in pastoral pastels.) Agnes crowns Dupieux’s string of you-can’t-cheat-an-honest-man scams and improvs with a parting scene that is almost sweet.

Mandibles critiques mankind’s ruthlessness and egocentricity characterized by literal greed — not a favorable subject when film culture is committed to comic-book fantasies and self-congratulatory political correctness. This rude farceur is truer to the era — more psychically revealing — than do-gooder social-justice filmmakers.

Despite his narrative pranks, Dupieux’s moral vision is weirdly demanding. That pet-sized fly that Jean-Gab teaches to gesticulate is a gruesome reminder of some of our most repulsive public activists. (Imagine what he could do with Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, Lori Lightfoot, Gretchen Whitmer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar.) If Dupieux pays homage to Carne and Prevert’s farce about human folly, this comic of our new dark age can also usefully evoke Shakespeare’s King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.”

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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