Mandibles (Mandibules in the original French) is a film by Quentin Dupieux, the guy who in 1999 gave the world Flat Eric, a nodding glove puppet with deadly comic timing originally designed to sell Levi’s Sta-Prest clothing.
Aspects of the manic, affectless, idiot-savant spirit of Eric (if you don’t know him, here’s an example) can often be seen in Dupieux’s characters. Dupieux’s people are usually Flat in some way. There’s often something not-quite-there about the storyline too, and Dupieux has an unusual way of framing his shots – deliberately slightly too high, or too low, always just a bit off somehow.
All fully evident here. Manu (Grégoire Ludig), a bum who sleeps on the beach, is approached to do a simple pick-up and drop-off job. €500 to do it. No questions asked. Just don’t open the suitcase. Hold on to that plotline as an example of how Dupieux works, since it’s almost instantly forgotten, swapped out for another plot driver – a gigantic fly in the boot of the car that Manu, now accompanied by his similarly dim friend, Jean-Gab (David Marsais), has stolen to carry out the (forgotten) job.
New plotlines arrive. A trailer where Jean-Gab starts the training of Dominique (as he’s named the fly) – hoping she might be a golden ticket to a fortune. A trio of young women who mistake Manu for a guy one of them went to school with and so invite the luckless pair to stay at their holiday home.
It’s like Dumb and Dumber or a Bill and Ted movie – Manu and Jean-Gab share the French equivalent of “awesome”, “most excellent” dialogue and have a secret blood-brother handshake – except with no actual quest-style throughline. Incident piles on incident. Things happen, sometimes for no reason. One of the young women is called Agnès, and for no reason whatsover she has a condition which causes her to shout the entire time. She’s played by Adèle Exarchopoulos, who extracts big laughs not from Agnès’s condition, but from her character, a strange mix of naivety and aggression.
There is no plot, no plan. Manu and Jean-Gab are a pair with a severe deficit of forethought, a recurring trait in Dupieux’s characters, blundering from one situation to another.
Not unsurprisingly, the film works best in stabs. At one point Manu introduces a tiny dog to the villa and brings it into the room where Jean-Gab is hiding the giant fly. We’ve seen the fly eating cat food and other meaty treats. It wouldn’t eat a dog, would it?
At another the police arrive and one of the cops turns out to be the real Fred, Cécile’s long lost friend from high school – with thigh tattoo to prove it.
Earlier, while attempting to cook lunch, Manu sets fire to the trailer he and Jean-Gab had lucked upon, this scene relying for its comic effect on how quickly a fire will rip through an old trailer out in a very dry landscape. Dupieux holds the shot as the flames gather force while Manu – cooking utensils still in hand – looks on with Jean-Gab as their temporary home goes woof.
Special mention has to go to whoever built the fly, a puppet operated by a human, apparently, and modelled on the sort of creatures you’d find in a 1950s monster sci-fi movie.
Absurdist, situationist, chaotic, Mandibles is fun but the lack of a plot means it’s straining to make it even to its 77 minute finish line. Dupieux promises he’s going to do something different in the future so perhaps this will be the last of this sort of banzai comedy we’ll see from him. Though there has also been talk of a sequel to Mandibles, provisionally titled Tentacles.
Small detail, as Dupieux pointed out in an interview, flies don’t have mandibles.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022