Quentin Dupieux is stuck in a time warp. His new film “Reality” has a texture so washed out that it looks like it was shot in 1974 and has just been unearthed from some film vault in Paris. This is no accident. “Reality,” just like his hilarious killer tire movie “Rubber,” is an unapologetic tribute to B-movies — especially those with a high-concept plot, a dash of science fiction and actors determinedly chewing up the set.
There are several plot strands that come together like elegantly crafted origami. It’s only by watching each fold intertwine that we arrive at the beautiful final product.
A young girl named Reality (Kyla Kenedy) witnesses her hunter father gut a hog and from the animal’s innards she spots a blue video cassette (remember those). She believes the cassette holds some big secret. Her wacky parents think she’s imagining things.
Jon Heder (“Napoleon Dynamite”) plays Denis, a television presenter who wears a big rat suit when hosting a cookery show. Why? As fans of “Rubber” will surely have guessed, there is no reason. He’s performing badly because he’s got a big itch. He believes it to be caused by eczema. His doctor, and everyone else, think it’s something coming out of his mind.
A cameraman named Jason (Alain Chabat), who works on the cooking show wants to cast Denis in a movie he is planning to make. Called “Waves,” the project centers on television sets that kill people. Why? Because television makes people stupid. By placing the story in a video cassette age, the world of the movie has not moved on from the media targets of “A Face in the Crowd” or “Network.”
“Steak” actor Jonathan Lambert reunites with Dupieux to play television producer Bob, whose office looks like it was designed by the architects of “Zabriskie Point.” Bob agrees to greenlight “Waves,” but only if Jason can with an Oscar-winning groan — the sound humans will make when they are being killed by their TV sets. He has 48 hours to achieve the impossible task — but that doesn’t stop him trying. There is also a fine cameo from Tim and Eric star Eric Wareham, and John Glover plays a genius director, which could well be self-aggrandizement on the part of Dupieux. But credit where it’s due: The directors, both real and fictional, brilliantly interweave each off-beat strand without detracting from the quirky humor.
There is nothing new in the idea of making a film about the merging of fact and fiction in the filmmaking practice: There were two others at the recently concluded Venice Film Festival (“Birdman” and “The Humbling”), and these arrived hot on the heels of Cannes competition entry “Clouds of Sils Maria.”
But the beauty of Dupieux’s latest — which some viewers may find grating — is that it’s guaranteed to leave audiences scratching their heads over which events are fact or fiction. There are no simple answers. The French-born, Los Angeles-based director has structured the action so that the different strands of the story collapse into themselves, as dream characters meet with television characters and the seemingly real ones later turn out to be movie characters. Confused? That’s how Dupieux wants it. For those willing to play along, the experience offers plenty of rewarding surprises.
There is more than a hint of “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind” in the film’s structure, particularly the way dreams and reality merge. Indeed, although aesthetically quite different, Dupieux and “Sunshine” director Michel Gondry share a playfulness in approach and brazen self-confidence that can be folly when it goes wrong — but here they flounder momentarily rather than end in car crashes.
There are some jokes that require knowledge of Dupieux’s previous work and trends in cinema to work. One of the more obvious examples is a movie theater showing “Waves,” “Rubber 2” and “Wondrous State.” There is also the moment that Chabat realizes the film he intends to write has already been made and with the same title. Was this Dupieux’s reaction to seeing the similarly-themed Matteo Garrone film “Reality” at Cannes two years ago? Regardless, Dupieux’s “Reality” is the most fun and eclectic of the plethora of movies that have been made on this potent theme.
“Reality” premiered last week at the Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.