On the occasion of its 700th issue, legendary French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma has partnered with the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), New York's premiere French cultural center, to present a special two-part CinéSalon film series. The series, which continues this month, features a selection of rarely shown treasures from French film history with a showcase of top picks that have been championed in the pages of the magazine. Indiewire is pleased to be partnering with FIAF and Cahiers du Cinéma to present reviews of films in the series originally published in the magazine and available here in English for the first time with translations by Nicholas Elliott, the magazine's New York correspondent.
Today, FIAF screens Quentin Dupieux's "Steak" at 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The 7:30 screening will be introduced by filmmakers Benny and Josh Safdie.
This review of "Steak" is by Stéphane Delorme and Jean-Philippe Tessé, respectively editor in chief and deputy editor of Cahiers du Cinéma since 2009.
"Steak" leaves us slack-jawed and wide-eyed. We had feared an arty escapade for two comedians, absurd to the point of being abstruse like Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern's "Avida," but on the contrary, we're along for the ride from the very first shots: Quentin Dupieux, the director of the unobtainable Non Film — which we urgently need to get our hands on — knows exactly what he's doing.
It all starts with a military grunt driving along a country road in rear projection, with chipper whistling evoking low-grade French army comedies. His wig flies off. Crusty French parody? Following behind him, we see long tall Ramzy on a skateboard, straight out of "Back to the Future" or "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." Then comes Eric, arriving from a time when bicycles were known as BMX's. We're looking at the temporal pile-up of an unhinged film or a film hinged on the anachronisms of deranged movies: the rural sci-fi of Louis de Funès' comedy "La Soupe aux choux" or fifties tackiness as seen from the Carter years ("Grease").
Allegedly, "Steak" is science fiction. Let's start by saying what it's about: the wigless grunt's jeep flips over and Ramzy pulls a machine gun out of the wreck, later using it to wipe out the bullies who torture him at school. But his buddy Eric takes the fall for him: seven years in a psychiatric hospital. When he's released, we dive straight into a campus movie and discover a gang of milk-drinking hoods called the Chivers.
Some claim "nothing happens" in "Steak." On the contrary, it is a condensation of tightly edited actions packed into 80 minutes.
All this might lead you to think the film is a parody. Not at all. Mysteriously, the scrambling of periods is very gentle. The signs are toned down by the radiance of the images illuminating the film's mini-format — the magnificent "Outsiders"-style sunset, the sparkling boot setting foot on the ground, the micro zoom on a parked sedan that brings us to the streets of San Francisco.
Where are we? In Canada, without an accent, which is to say nowhere, neither in France nor in the United States. The background, where the overly calm architecture of the houses and landscapes lurks, is as carefully tended as the plot. It is like a mattress cushioning the narrative's anxious bizarreness. No one could be surprised to learn that Quentin Dupieux has confessed to letting himself be guided by the little world of "Twin Peaks." "Steak" is basically a comedy but purely a futuristic film.
The formula for this sliding is revealed in a brilliant car conversation scene. "Seven years later," Ramzy drives his truck to fetch Eric from the hospital and teaches him the basics of the "new humor." Throughout the conversation, Eric obstructs half the screen, while some kind of soft robot or paper mummy wiggles around in the background: it's Ramzy, whose head is entirely bandaged because he has just had his face redone (seven years later, the facelift is king). We're not even talking eyes without a face, just two black holes poked through the bandage with scissors. Eric & Ramzy do Eric & Ramzy skits (hesitations, jokes that fall flat, etc.), while the seriousness of the shot, which does not pay the slightest attention to Ramzy's stupefying appearance, creates a certain malaise.
So the definition of the new humor might be that it is serious about everything to the point of malaise. The organic kneaded by ubiquitous plastic surgery, the characters trapped in short loops (Jonathan Lambert, a perfect little ball of nerves, scatters billiard balls three times), degenerating mechanics (Eric's car moving forward in little leaps): everything goes wrong while the mise en scène remains majestically imperturbable. The Chivers' idiotic game based on mental arithmetic and baseball bat swings to the gut is filmed with great solemnity and sublime lighting.
This genius for sampling and repetition may be due to Dupieux's grounding as a musician. With the collaboration of Sébastien Tellier, he has composed a soundtrack of simple, precise loops under the name of Mr. Oizo. The audio material seems lifted from a background of murmured rambling (the chemistry lesson delivered in a slumped teacher’s mechanical voice, the S&M back-and-forth between Eric and his psychologist). To the point that the music becomes a gag: play three seconds of a song for a friend, stop, turn to him and ask: "So what do you think of it?" Throughout the entire film, the same hit is constantly repeated on the car radio for just a few seconds, long enough to cut the motor. Ratchet up another notch and hello anxiety.
Back home, Eric discovers his house is empty, quietly reads a letter heard in his mother's voiceover, repeating the end of each sentence of this goodbye note which concludes with "Cordially, Mom." Alone in the silent house, he is surrendered to the anxiety of a mad child: who will wash me? How will I fall asleep? He screams and punches the wall. Laughter has rarely been so dark.
It would be foolish to oppose auteur and actors. What a pleasure to see Eric & Ramzy find a director worthy of them. We believed in them from their first skits to the feature "La Tour Montparnasse infernale" (which Cahiers defended). Then came the black hole: "Double zéro" ("Double Zero") deserves its title and "Lucky Luke and the Daltons" was miserable. They have been reproached for overselling their "Steak" as if it were a regular Eric-and-Ramzy film with stunts and barrels of laughs. But with their own directorial debut slated for this summer, it bodes well that they didn't bury this "unsellable" project and supported it like any other of their films (even a little more than the others).
—Stéphane Delorme and Jean-Philippe Tessé
Originally published in Cahiers du Cinéma issue 625, July-August 2007. Translated by Nicholas Elliott.