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Not since Jeff Goldblum stocked his penis in a jar or Bryan Cranston tore apart his meth lab has a fly played such a pivotal role on screen as in Mandibles (Mandibules), the latest comic whatchamacallit from French one-man-band Quentin Dupieux.
Like the director-writer-DP-editor-composer’s other films — seven surreal outings over the past decade or so, including last year’s Jean Dujardin starrer Deerskin — this one pits man against whatever crazy thing Dupieux wants to toss into the mix: a tire, a steak, a suede coat, a horror movie scream, or, in this case, a giant insect that becomes a cuddly household pet for two bona fide losers hoping to make a fast buck.
Yet what makes Mandibles work more as a straightforward comedy compared to Dupieux’s usual output is the buddy-movie chemistry of leads David Marsais and Grégoire Ludig, who seem to be directly imported into France from the world of Dumb and Dumber, with Ludig also channeling major Big Lebowski Dude vibes — hair and hygiene included.
Short, sweet and genuinely funny at times, if also insane and possibly offensive to anyone who’s had a terrible skiing accident (more on that later), this Venice premiere will hit French theaters in early December and could find a few flytraps abroad.
The first time we see Manu (Ludig), he’s lying in a sleeping bag on a beach, indifferent to the waves washing over him. The first time we see Jean-Gab (Marsais), he’s working at a gas station but seems to have no idea how a car actually functions. That these two nudniks are besties comes as no real surprise. What is a bit surprising is how, after setting out on a mission to earn a whopping 500 euros, they find their plans upended when a fly as big as a medium-size bulldog shows up in the trunk of their stolen Mercedes.
Rather than letting the insect, which looks both harmless and slightly huggable, fly away, Jean-Gab decides to tape down its wings and train it to be “like a drone” that can steal stuff from stores and even rob banks. It’s a knuckleheaded idea, but these guys are already several cans short of a six-pack (or whatever the French saying is — “glasses short of a decanter?”), so you’re not expecting anything less from them.
The two guys and their fly, whom they decide for some reason to name Dominique, then set off on the road, going from a trailer home that catches fire to a seaside bungalow where Manu pretends to be the long-lost classmate of Cécile (India Hair), who’s vacationing with her brother (Belgian rapper Roméo Elvis) and a pair of gal-friends.
One of the latter, Agnès (Adèle Exarchopoulos, of Blue Is the Warmest Color), speaks several octaves higher than normal, a freakish verbal defect resulting from severe brain damage. The fact that Dupieux plays this for laughs in a very Farrelly brothers kind of way could prove offensive to some. Still, it’s hard to snipe at Exarchopoulos’ performance, which is both deadpan and cartoonishly over-the-top, like Tex Avery by way of David Lynch.
Putting aside some of the more outré gags, Mandibles plays best when focusing on the bromantic comedy routine of Ludig and Marsais, who have been performing together for years, co-starring in a popular French TV sketch series (Palmashow) and a less-popular World War II spoof (La Folle Histoire de Max et Léon). They have a great sense of timing, of letting a joke hang in the air for a few necessary seconds. And Dupieux keeps the pace swift enough — the film clocks in at 77 minutes — so that the action never grows too stale, even if there’s not much in terms of plot.
Once again serving as cinematographer and editor, as well as writing the music (before directing movies, he broke through in the late ’90s as the French electro DJ Mr. Oizo), Dupieux has by now perfected a house style that’s instantly recognizable. It can be an acquired taste, especially in more egregiously offbeat efforts like 2018’s Keep an Eye Out, but here the jokes click more successfully and the nonsense makes sense, sort of.
After all, there’s not a whole lot of filmmakers who could unite two brain-dead protagonists, a brain-damaged young woman and an oversized insect under one roof, and somehow transform them into elements of dark humor. In the otherwise stale world of French comedies, Dupieux stands so far out in left field that he’s become a genre unto himself.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Chi-Fou-Mi Productions, C8 Films, Memento Films Productions, Artémis Productions
Cast: David Marsais, Grégoire Ludig, Adèle Exarchopoulos, India Hair, Roméo Elvis, Coralie Russier
Director, screenwriter, director of photography, editor, composer: Quentin Dupieux
Producers: Hugo Sélignac, Vincent Mazel
Production designer: Joan Le Boru
Costume designer: Isabelle Pannetier
Casting: Marine Albert
Sales: WTFilms, Wild Bunch
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