Film of the Week: Reality
In Quentin Dupieux’s Reality, Jason (Alain Chabat), a struggling French director in L.A., pitches an idea for a science-fiction movie named Waves (“Like ‘microwaves’,” he explains). In it, TV sets emit waves that suck the intelligence out of their viewers and reduce humanity to a state of imbecility. “Science fiction,” nods the producer approvingly.
Satirical or otherwise—the fact that it might be doesn’t seem to have dawned on Jason—Waves is no better or worse an idea for a movie than one in which the antihero is a misunderstood rubber tire which goes on a righteous killing spree. Quentin Dupieux has already made that movie, Rubber (10). Amid its other oddities, Reality briefly posits an alternative reality in which there’s also a Rubber 2, glimpsed on the marquee of the cinema where, to Jason’s horror, Waves is showing before he’s even made it. “You can’t watch it,” he rants at a puzzled audience, “this film doesn’t exist yet!”
Watching Reality, you do feel somewhat as if you’re watching a film that doesn’t really exist. It feels more like a sketch for a hypothetical movie that’s too preposterous to actually make, but fun to simply evoke, in a cool, hyper-detached way, its purely theoretical status signaled by multiple layers of metafictional movie-within-movie-within-dream-within-movie nesting. The jiggery-pokery begins with the title: “Reality” is both the name of the film and of its ostensible heroine, a little girl (the implacably scowling Kyla Kenedy), whose levelheaded refusal to fall for grown-ups’ lies and fiction-making fripperies represents a solid base of clarity to this nebulous net of confusion. Note: Reality the girl and Reality the film are not strictly one and the same—the actual title seen in the opening credits is Réalité. I’m not sure how much this matters, although it’s intriguing that what presents itself as a very American movie is stamped discreetly but decisively from the start with le French touch, whatever that may be.
Reality/té is, literally, an English-language American movie (with a bit of French dialogue) made by an expat French director—but it’s also a sort of joke on the very idea of what a Frenchman with a self-consciously surreal worldview (and a no-less-self-conscious maverick complex) might get up to on the margins of Hollywood. Quentin Dupieux’s career so far feels like a conceptual joke about itself: starting out as a dance musician under the name of Mr. Oizo (his videos and ads with the puppet Flat Eric were a late-Nineties cult favorite), he made a luridly offbeat comedy—Steak (07), with French duo Eric et Ramzy—before moving to the States for films including Rubber (famously shot on the Canon 5D stills camera) and Wrong Cops (13), which featured a juicy bit of stunt casting: Marilyn Manson as a gawky high-schooler.
Dupieux can generally be counted on to get juicily negative reviews in English-language publications (“mind-numbingly unfunny,” Variety said of Reality), but has ’em slavering in the august (OK, once-august) chambers of Cahiers du cinéma, which celebrated Reality in its February issue by devoting four articles to it (one by Dupieux) and an interview, all under its Evénement (Event) rubric. Unloved overseas, revered by the loftiest minds at home: one hesitates to say it, but in Dupieux, France may finally have created its own hipster Jerry Lewis.
Reality, I have to say, is kind of a bore—but then, it is, after a fashion, supposed to be. One of its running jokes is a drearily lugubrious TV cookery show hosted by a man (Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder) who clearly doesn’t have his heart in it, or in anything; and the film’s score is Philip Glass’s rigorously affectless 1971 piece Music With Changing Parts. Like Glass’s piece, Dupieux’s film rattles on and on, but does gently mutate, by and by. The overall effect is comic, but it’s a comedy of cumulative effect, and weirdly narcotized; if we laugh at all, it’s like doing so under hypnosis.
There’s no real center to the film, more a set of strands knotted round each other, like a cat’s cradle that never finds a defining shape. Reality is out with her dad when he shoots a wild boar; when he guts it, among its artificially rubbery-looking innards is a VHS cassette, which tweaks her curiosity. TV host Dennis (Heder) presents his cookery show while wearing a rat suit that causes him to scratch uncontrollably, which disgusts his viewers—who apparently weren’t disgusted in the first place by a man-size rat overseeing the preparation of a Strawberry Charlotte. Jason, a cameraman on the show, pitches his movie Waves to an archetypal easily distracted despot of a producer (French actor Jonathan Lambert)—who, despite being called Bob Marshall, appears to be as French as Jason. Bob says he’ll finance Waves, on the condition that Jason provides him with the best groan ever to grace a movie—an Oscar groan, no less. Obsessively pursuing this quest, Jason (played with affable intensity by Alain Chabat, normally the most mainstream of French comic actors) dreams of winning the Best Groan award at an Academy ceremony presided over by Michel Hazanavicius and former Catherine Breillat ingénue Roxane Mesquida. It could happen, I suppose. But it’s hard to decide whether Dupieux has set out to make an American movie parodying French filmmakers like himself, or a French parody of American notions about French eccentricity. Meanwhile, incidents that appear to be happening for real turn out to be scenes from a film made by another director entirely, one Zog (John Glover). (Is there an in-joke here about Zog, the one-time king of Albania? Is Dupieux really, secretly parodying the arcane outer limits of Albanian cinema? One can only reply with a shrug of the shoulders and a nonplussed Gallic Bof…).
Reality seems so nonchalant about its somewhat mechanical strangeness that the effect is not so much “WTF?”, more “where-exactly-are-you-going-with-this?” As the film proceeds, you feel rather like a producer (or a Variety reviewer) in a hurry, impatiently glancing at your watch while waiting to be impressed. For a long time, Reality doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular, or anywhere particularly new—the mise-en-abyme dream structure is a little bit late Buñuel, a great deal David Lynch, the whole thing slightly resembling a more orderly, daylit Inland Empire with all its neuroses tightly repressed. One twist is right out of Lost Highway—Jason phones Bob, only to find that the producer is already in the middle of a conversation with Jason himself. There’s nothing here to freak you out, really—especially given that Dupieux alerts us to his game early on by having Jason’s analyst wife (Élodie Bouchez) reading a book called Endless Mirrors.
Even the most dedicated lover of hallucinatory Möbius-strip narrative would have cause to complain that the déjà vu factor in Reality isn’t so much a function, more a reflection on Dupieux’s running some very well-worn Surrealist software. And yet, for all this, there’s something strangely intriguing about Reality—starting with the improbability of Dupieux making the film in the first place. In Rubber, he charmed and alienated viewers in equal proportions by having a character turn to camera and pontificate on the rationale of “No reason” being the true motivating principle of movies. And what’s actually quite alluring about Reality is this very gratuitousness*: it may have been done before, but why not simply do it again, and carry on doing it, in a way that finally becomes as hypnotic as early Philip Glass? After all, there’s no harm in it: it can’t reduce you to an imbecile state or make your head explode and gush Troma-style torrents of blood, as the TVs do in Waves.
It’s almost as if Dupieux—who also shoots and edits his own films—had made Reality purely for the sheer hell of adding another Quentin Dupieux movie to his IMDb listing. You can imagine him carrying on up in the Hollywood Hills obsessively making movies for his own amusement forever—just like an older French eccentric, writer-director Jean-Pierre Mocky, now 81, who has pretty much managed to turn out a film a year since 1959, purely it seems for his own cantankerous pleasure (for stretches of his career, he’s also owned a cinema to show them in). And if that’s what Dupieux were doing, how could you possibly complain? Good for him for dreaming himself into existence, like a character in a Quentin Dupieux movie. True, Reality could be more entertaining or more original—but then you could say the same about the supposed ontological state that it’s named after.
* An example of the film’s sheer gratuitousness: it features a fleeting cameo by French musician Thomas Bangalter (who also happens to be Monsieur Élodie Bouchez). But what’s the point of casting Bangalter in a cameo? After all, no one knows what he looks like—he’s usually only ever seen wearing a shiny helmet as one half of Daft Punk.**
** For a further in-joke riff on the fact that no one knows (or cares) what Daft Punk look like with the helmets off, see Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, coming later this year.