From the Archives: Nightstream Festival Review: Mandibles continues Dupieux’s streak

From the Archives: Nightstream Festival Review: Mandibles continues Dupieux’s streak

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

Writer, director, musician, DJ — a lot of words could be used to describe Quentin Dupieux, the prolific absurdist whose latest film, Mandibles, served as the closing night attraction for Nightstream. One word that could never be used to describe him, however, is “normal.” Anyone who has consumed any of his work knows what type of strangeness they’re in store for, but at the same time, nobody could ever claim that they know exactly what to expect. He’s done a film about a sentient, bloodthirsty tire, a film about a deerskin jacket that causes the wearer to become violently obsessed with fashion-based materialism, and a film about a man on a mission to find the perfect sound bite of a man getting hit in the groin. So yeah, he makes some weird shit.

His latest film is a touch more accessible than some of his previous work, but it’s no less bizarre or entertaining. Mandibles tells the story of a very bad, very dumb man named Manu who has been hired to move a briefcase from one location to another. It’s a simple job, but Manu, a sort of low-morals take on The Dude, is pretty easily distracted. He steals a car to get the job done, enlists the help of his friend Jean, and starts on his powerfully simple mission — a mission that will land him five hundred dollars, no questions asked. It’s really that easy. Point A to point B, collect money. Not even Frank Martin could screw this up.

Almost immediately a noise emanates from the trunk of the stolen car, piquing the curiosity of the hapless duo. They open the trunk to find that the noise is coming from a gigantic housefly which was locked inside. Faced with a dog-sized bug, they figure screw the briefcase. A giant fly is basically free money, at least the way Manu and Jean see it. While their plan isn’t fleshed out beyond “train it to bring us stuff, like a drone, and then we’ll be sitting pretty” it’s a good enough plan to derail their original mission. What’s the point of chasing five hundred measly bucks when you’ve got a cash cow (financial fly?) sitting in your lap already?

As Manu and Jean put their plan into action, clearly lacking any sort of foresight, urgency, or intellect, they encounter many situations that require logic to navigate, as well as many people who are all undoubtedly worse off for finding themselves in the duo’s path. The fun of watching Mandibles is witnessing the creative ways that these two assholes manage to self-sabotage, while basking in the rampant absurdity of such a strange tale. The escalations are simultaneously unbelievable and perfectly believable, which is a lot of why the sustained dryness can last for so long. The fly, lovingly named Dominique, is the least oddball thing they encounter, and capturing it is the closest thing to a sensible behavior that our heroes enact onscreen.

The film itself is rather straightforward when it comes to the visual design. It’s a bright, sunny picture with just a few very similar settings to fill. It has the same digital sharpness of Dupieux’s previous film, Deerskin, but the color palette is distinctly brighter. If Deerskin aimed to share its overall color with the titular jacket, Mandibles attempts to look more like the bright, sweat-stained shirts worn by Manu and Jean. The sunny, airy feel of the world helps to remind the viewer that, even when our heroes do truly despicable things, we are here not to apply judgment or reason, but to sit back and enjoy the insanity.

The fly itself is a bit of a mystery to me. At times it looks like a puppet, at others, like a digital creation. My guess is that it’s a mix of both, and an effective one at that. It feels like it shares real space with the human characters, and I think that’s key to making the plot events feel as crazy as they do. Really, the gags live and die on their relation to a “real” world. The absurdity must play as a type of aberration to normalcy in order to work, and if the fly didn’t look tangible, or looked way too goofy in design, it would tip the delicate scales of humor too far into the bizarre. But alas, Dupieux is a master of this sort of thing.

Like all of Dupieux’s films, Mandibles houses an unbelievably game cast, all of whom are tasked with getting the joke. Being such a slinger of weirdness, it’s regularly impressive how well Dupieux is able to keep all of the performances on the same page. Be it the goofballs or the straight players, the degree to which everyone is able to do everything at a congruent level of dryness is perhaps the film’s most exciting display of craft. Everyone is 100% in on the joke, and 150% committed to it.

While I personally prefer Dupieux’s style when it leans a bit darker than it does here, Mandibles marks yet another delightfully idiosyncratic entry into the oeuvre of a filmmaker whose work defies comparison. With a Quentin Dupieux film, you’re always going to get a true original, and Mandibles is precisely that. Toro!

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