Quentin Dupieux is on a roll. After a somewhat rocky start, he is now releasing feature films at a steady pace, getting them into the big festivals and amassing fans in both genre and arthouse scenes. When the elevator pitch of Mandibles [Mandibules] leaked, it was clear this was going to be another vintage Dupieux project. I was pretty excited to catch up with his latest as he hasn't really disappointed me yet, I'm happy to say Mandibles lived up to his reputation. It's another dry and absurd comedy, though with enough wit and creativity to surprise even the more hardened Dupieux fans.
Dry and absurd is what Dupieux does best, but that doesn't mean he's been merely repeating himself this past decade. He has stuck to this particular type of comedy rather vigorously, even so each of his films has somewhat shifted and explored the balance between realism and fantasy. Some of his films are more overtly fantastical (like Rubber, the one about a killer tire), others are slightly more grounded in reality (think Deerskin, about a man who goes a bit mental over a jacket). The interesting thing about Mandibles is that he tried to stuff both extremes into a single film.
When you hear Mandibles is a film about two guys who steal a car and find a giant fly lodged in their trunk, that creates certain expectations. But then Dupieux takes those expectations and does very little with them, instead shifting the primary focus to the lead characters. Two complete goofs who fail to do anything right. The giant fly is relegated to a secondary character, no doubt one of the most absurd things Dupieux has ever done. Sure enough, that's going to leave some people somewhat pissed and/or disappointed, personally I think it was the best gag of this entire film.
Manu is homeless and does the odd job when he's asked. A shady guy hires him to fetch a suitcase and bring it to a specified address. Manu steals a car, picks up his friend Jean-Gab and off they go. On their way to the pickup location, a strange sound starts bugging Manu. It turns out to be coming from the trunk. They park the car and find a humongous fly stuck inside. Manu wants to get rid of it, Jean-Gab has a better idea. They decide to train the fly and have it steal things for them. Training a fly isn't easy though, especially when you don't have money, nor a place to stay.
Dupieux isn't the most visual director, though his film do tend to have a unique visual signature. Mandibles is no exception. There's a strong summery, holiday-like vibe running underneath the film and Dupieux uses a soft color palette with sun-bleached pastels to create a very mellow atmosphere. It may not be all that flashy, but it's pretty effective. Also props for the special effects on the fly. Dupieux could've made it easy on himself by going for some lo-fi prop, instead the thing actually looks weirdly believable. Not all that realistic, but not just a half-arsed animatronic either.
The soundtrack is one of those areas where I think Dupieux could still improve. It's not that his music doesn't fit his films or doesn't contribute to the mood, it's just that as a producer he had a more outspoken style. The music in Mandibles fades into the background a little. It's a quirky score and it highlights the daftness of the comedy, but it's hard to remember any specifics afterwards. That said, Dupieux's films are probably divisive enough as it is, and I wouldn't be surprised if his choice to tone the soundtrack down was at least somewhat deliberate.
Forget the fly, this film is about the two dumbos who spearhead the film. Grégoire Ludig and David Marsais do a tremendous job, the chemistry between them is what makes Mandibles work. I wasn't all that surprised to learn they worked together before, the way they defined their characters and built on top of each other's performances betrayed their familiarity. I also really loved Adèle Exarchopoulos' character, which is 200% grating and one-note, but still extremely funny. Not at all what I'd expected from her, but that just makes it that much funnier.
Mandibles is one of those films that isn't really about anything. Whatever narrative it introduces, it just as quickly abandons. It has a pretty clean and recognizable intro, after that the plot is just seemingly random. It's a bit like the early films of Hiroyuki Tanaka, which also have a tendency to venture off in random directions, though Dupieux's work is way more absurd. No doubt this is going to irk a lot of people, especially the ones hoping to see a wacky film about a giant fly, but that's just part of the fun. I know it made me laugh.
If you're a Dupieux fan, you can go into this knowing you're going to have a good time. Whether you'll end up appreciating, liking or loving the film depends on how well you'll respond to the central duo, but all the usual Dupieux perks are there. If you're new to Dupieux, you might be better off seeing some of his other films first. Personally, I had a blast. The stand-out performances, the downplayed craziness, the chill atmosphere and more than a handful of memorable moments make this another lesson in dry and absurd comedy. As odd as it may sound, I believe Dupieux is by far the most interesting French director of the past decade.