absurdist, Adaptation, Alain Chabat, art films, auteur theory, Élodie Bouchez, breaking the fourth wall, Charlie Kaufman, cinema, confusing films, dark comedies, dream-like, electronic score, Eric Wareheim, experimental film, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, hogs, Hollywood producer, Hollywood satire, husband-wife relationship, insanity, John Gallagher Jr., John Glover, John Heder, Jonathan Lambert, kooky psychiatrist, Kyla Kenedy, life imitating art, Lola Delon, loss of identity, Matt Battaglia, meta-films, Movies, Mr. Oizo, Patrick Bristow, producer-director relationships, Quentin Dupieux, Reality, Rubber, surrealism, Susan Diol, Synecdoche New York, Thomas Bangalter, videotapes, writer-director-cinematographer-editor, Wrong, Wrong Cops
Many filmmakers merely flirt with the weird and “out there,” toeing a carefully demarcated line in the sand between material that genuinely challenges viewers and material that upholds our own, personal status quos. These films may seem impossibly strange, from the outside, but cracking them open, as it were, tends to reveal their decidedly mundane inner workings. Gussying up a traditional narrative with stylistic tics and quirks, complex timelines and pseudo-philosophical meanderings doesn’t make it genuinely challenging any more than slapping a suit on a dog makes it the chairman of the board.
Standing on the fringes of these “politely difficult” films, however, are another batch of filmmakers: the agitators, the genuinely strange and the patently difficult. These are the filmmakers, artists like Charlie Kaufman, Yorgos Lanthimos, György Pálfi, Guy Maddin and Gaspar Noé, who possess singular visions that sit so far outside the mainstream as to seem almost alien. From films like Adaptation (2002) and Synedoche, New York (2008) to movies like Taxidermia (2006), Enter the Void (2009), Dogtooth (2009) and Tales From the Gimli Hospital (1988), these headscratchers are as far from popcorn multiplex features as one can get, immersing audiences into bizarre worlds that look strangely like our own, albeit twisted through a fractured mirror.
And, just to the left of that particular group, stands French auteur Quentin Dupieux. With a body of work that includes some of the most genuinely bizarre, out-there films I’ve ever seen, Dupieux has quickly become one of my very favorite modern filmmakers. As a firm believer in the auteur theory, Dupieux is sort of my gold standard in this day and age: not only does he write and direct his films, he also shoots, edits and performs the electronic scores (Dupieux is also a world-renowned electro-musician who goes by the name Mr. Oizo)…talk about a one-man band! Any new Dupieux film is cause for celebration, which leads us to the subject of our current discussion: his newest oddball creation, Reality (2014). Did I expect the unexpected? But of course. Did Dupieux deliver? Between my aching cranium and over-stimulated imagination, I’m gonna have to answer in the affirmative.
Coming across as a bizarro-world take on Adaptation, threaded through with elements of The Truman Show (1998) and left to melt in the noonday sun, Reality deals with three separate individuals and the ways in which their lives eventually crisscross each other, leading to no small amount of pandemonium, confusion and inner turmoil. Reality (Kyla Kenedy) is an inquisitive young girl whose hunter father (Matt Battaglia, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a young Paul Newman) has just killed a wild boar in the woods and pulled a blue videotape from its carcass. She also seems to be the star of some sort of film being shot in her room, while she sleeps, by a kooky director named Zog (the always-kooky John Glover)…you know, your basic kid stuff.
The next corner of our triangle is inhabited by Dennis (John Heder), the mopey, downtrodden host of a TV cooking show who wears a moth-eaten rat costume and scratches his (possibly imaginary) eczema like it was going out of style. All that Dennis wants is a little relief from his constant irritation but a trip to outrageously obnoxious Dr. Klaus (Patrick Bristow) makes him out to be either a liar, an idiot or both.
The final point of the triangle, preternaturally nice cameraman Jason (Alain Chabat, who featured prominently in several Gondry films, among many others), also ends up being our defacto protagonist. After working his way up from receptionist to cameraman on Dennis’ show, Jason now wants to take the next step and secure funding for his own film, a strange little sci-fi movie about evil, sentient televisions called Waves. When Jason goes to pitch his idea to mega-producer Bob Marshall (Jonathan Lambert), however, the Hollywood exec is only interested in one, single aspect of the proposed production: if Jason can come with the best, most “Oscar-worthy” groan of all time, Marshall will fund his film, sight unseen.
From this point, it becomes a madcap dash as our three corners all attempt to achieve their goals: Reality needs to find out what’s on the videotape, Dennis needs to cure his skin condition and Jason needs to find the ultimate expression of pain and present it to his increasingly unhinged producer. Did I also mention Henri (Eric Wareheim), Reality’s school superintendent, whose cross-dressing dreams appear to be bleeding into reality? How about Jason’s wife, Alice (Élodie Bouchez), the shrink who’s treating Henri in between disparaging virtually every aspect of her husband’s life? Somehow, all of these disparate elements come together to form a real tsunami of the strange, culminating in a truly mind-melting meta-commentary on the nature of authorship, the terror of identity and the inherent insanity of the Hollywood movie machine. In other words: par for the course for Dupieux, the crown-prince of impish cinematic provocateurs.
As an unabashed fan of anything and everything Dupieux (last year’s Wrong Cops was my pick for best film of the year), approaching any new film of his is always a bracing mixture of anticipation and nervous optimism: I haven’t been let down, yet, but I’m the kind of gloomy gus who always expects disappointment around every potential corner. As luck would have it, however, Reality isn’t the film to break Dupieux’s hot-streak, although it definitely doesn’t rank as high as Wrong Cops or Wrong (2012) in my personal metrics. Despite being a much more baffling, confounding experience than any of his prior films, Reality handily displays an outsider filmmaker in full control of his faculties, bound and determined to submerge us in his particular flavor of “reality,” whether or not our poor minds are equipped to handle the experience.
One of the most notable differences, right off the bat, is the more austere, “realistic” vibe of Dupieux’s newest film. In fact, it isn’t until nearly 30 minutes in where it really “feels” like a Dupieux: the scene where Wareheim is introduced, driving a jeep down the street while wearing a gray dress and red scarf, all scored by that subtle “Oizoian” brand of simmering electronica, is quintessential Dupieux and one of his most striking scenes yet. While the film goes on to blend the more serious vibe with some of the goofier elements of his past films (Klaus is the kind of character that can pretty much only exist in a Dupieux universe), there’s a much different vibe here than either Wrong Cops or Wrong. If anything, Reality plays like a more under-stated, low-key take on the existential insanity of Wrong.
As befits Dupieux’s films, he gets some extraordinarily great work out of his cast. While Heder doesn’t get quite as much screentime as I would have liked, he gives the role his all: at times, his performance reminded me of Michael Keaton’s outstanding work in Birdman (2014), albeit without many of Keaton’s subtle shadings. Kenedy does a great job as Reality, disproving the old adage that child actors can’t hold their own amongst the grownups. Glover is predictably odd as Zog, while Lambert has an obscene amount of fun as the batshit crazy producer: whether he’s forcing cigarettes on poor, non-smoking Jason or sniping surfers with a high-powered rifle (complete with scope), Marshall is an absolute force of nature.
For his part, Wareheim turns in my second favorite performance of his ever, the first being his role in Wrong Cops. I never actually liked anything Wareheim was a part of until he got involved with Dupieux’s films: needless to say, I still don’t care for any of his other roles but I’ll be damned if he’s not an integral, necessary part of this particular world. Any and all of Wareheim’s scenes here are easy highlights (the dream sequence where he yells at an old man is, hands-down, one of the funniest sequences of the entire year) and he fits the overall ethos like a glove: as strange as it seems, Wareheim just might be Dupieux’s muse.
While the ensemble cast does remarkable work, however, Alain Chabat’s performance as Jason Tantra is the beating heart of the film. Reality would frequently collapse into chaos if we weren’t so invested in poor Jason’s quest: as he tries to satisfy not only his work and home commitments but his inner, artistic ones, it’s easy to see Jason as a kind of “Everyman” (albeit one focused on the entertainment industry), an avatar for a modern world lost in the clang and bustle of its own progress. The scenes where Jason fights to retain not only his sanity but his very identity are so fundamentally powerful because Chabat cuts through the inherent absurdity and shows us the real, scared and confused individual beneath.
As befits the rest of Dupieux’s oeuvre, Reality looks and sounds amazing: he really has an eye for crisp, colorful cinematography that pops on the screen and that trademark score elevates and enhances everything it comes into contact with. Dupieux may wear an awful lot of hats but he wears them all like a champ, not a chump: he’s a true auteur, in every sense of the term.
While Reality is a typically strong film, I would also be remiss if I didn’t admit that I found the whole thing rather baffling and confounding: this is the kind of film where logic and narrative cohesion mean a great deal less than mood and intention. Although none of Dupieux’s films could ever be called “simplistic,” Reality layers level upon level of meta-commentary until the only natural response for one’s brain is to yell “Stop!” and pull the dead man’s switch. While I’m fairly confident that I understand aspects of the film (the commentary on authorship is pretty difficult to miss and it’s rather easy to see the character of Jason as a surrogate for Dupieux’s own filmmaking experiences), there’s much that remains a complete mystery to me, at least until I’ve managed to watch the film several more times. Suffice to say that Reality is such an experience, I don’t mind doing the heavy-lifting: much better to imperfectly understand a clever film than to be endlessly bored by a dumb one, methinks.
At the end of the day, there’s really not much to say here that I haven’t already said about the rest of Quentin Dupieux’s films: the French filmmaker is a true marvel, one of the freshest, most ingenious voices operating today and just the kind of filmmaker who can help push the industry into a higher plane of existence. If Reality doesn’t rank as my favorite Dupieux (it actually ranks towards the bottom, perhaps tied with Rubber (2010)), it still manages to stand head-and-shoulders above most of what’s out there, proving that the most fascinating things are still coming out of the fringes. Here’s to hoping that if Dupieux ever gets co-opted by the mainstream, he manages to retain more of his identity than Spike Jonze did: I’d love the chance to see him play in a bigger sandbox but only if he got to do it on his terms and his alone.