Drafthouse Films, the distributor of Quentin Dupieux’s bizarre new film, “Wrong,” describes the French director and electronic musician (stage name: Mr. Oizo) as “one of the world’s most fearless cinematic surrealists.” The surreal does indeed seem to be Dupieux’s preferred register, but this leads me to a trickier question. Should we care?
Surrealism isn’t exactly fashionable anymore. Whether you consider it a movement, an aesthetic, or a politics — and wherever you place the dividing lines between these three — art critics agree that Surrealism grew out of Dadaist anti-rationalism in the terrible years of World War I and petered out somewhere between the end of World War II and the Sixties, replaced by other, fresher radicalisms.
The poet Guillaume Apollinaire coined the term, but it was Andre Breton, writing “The Surrealist Manifesto” in 1924, who brought it to prominence (and proceeded to be its domineering life force until his death in 1966). It was this eccentric, absurdist creed that came to mind watching “Wrong,” especially Breton’s “Encyclopedia” entry for Surrealism:
Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all, all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.
A working definition of what Dupieux might be up to begins to take shape: unexpected associations and juxtapositions (a Southern California landscaper speaking French-accented English); dreamscapes (a dog riding the bus, reunited with his owner); resolute playfulness (heavy downpours inside a nondescript office building). So close to Breton’s definition is Dupieux’s version of Surrealism, in fact, that it resembles a relic from another age — a curiosity found rummaging in culture’s closet, mothballs and all.
“Wrong,” which Dupieux wrote, directed, photographed, edited, and scored, follows Dolph Springer (Jack Plotnick, of “Reno 911”) as he searches for his lost dog, Paul.
To be frank, that’s about as far as synopsis can go. I could tell you that the palm tree in Dolph’s backyard mysteriously becomes a pine. I could tell you that he encounters a shadowy figure named Master Chang — played by well-known character actor William Fichtner, layering on so many oddities of inflection, accent, and movement that the performance becomes a black hole in the center of the movie, absorbing any light that approaches its orbit. I could tell you that the film includes an extended deconstruction of a pizza place flyer. But I could not promise you that any of these constitute “important plot points” or “illuminating details” or “useful ironies,” because then I would be lying.
All right, I will admit that just lining up the narrative elements is not quite faithful to the actual experience of watching the movie. “Wrong” does, in fleeting moments, exude a madcap strangeness that I would call compelling, particularly the tendency of all the characters to speak their minds rather than slalom through the niceties that make up so much of human conversation. (I prefer the subtler anarchism of screwball comedies and gangster films from the 1930s, but that’s material for another column.) Anyway, I’m sure Dupieux would tell me, “That’s not the point, you’re reading too much into it, narrative is not what Surrealism is about.”
Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean Surrealism can get away with not being about anything. (Breton disagreed. To him, Surrealism was “Psychic automatism in its pure state… Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”) In fact, this attention to the automatic, the unplanned, and the associative is a bit of a cop out. It allows the filmmaker, or any artist for that matter, to celebrate success as evidence that the style works, while explaining away failure as a consequence of the unintentional, the accidental, the fated. Surrealism is, or would like to be, critic-proof.
That it is not is suggested by some of the unfortunate decisions made in “Wrong”: to replant the palm, to make Master Chang’s face pockmarked with acid burns, to use the pizza joint as the jumping-off point for a mistaken-identity love story. These are choices, and if their intent resists logic that does not necessarily make them automatic, a revelation of some deeper truth. Indeed, if “Wrong” could be said to have one consistent flaw, it is the grimness of its “play,” the forced “randomness” of its associations.
“Wrong” is, at some level, an experimentalist’s attempt at disrupting the dominance of narrative, and Dupieux’s inventiveness is undeniable. But I finished the movie with a new quiver of doubts about the possibilities of Surrealism, and renewed conviction that its limits are what caused it to pass out of fashion. Not only does the film’s use of the surreal fail to solve “all the principal problems of life,” as Breton promised, it also fails to solve the principal problem of my Friday nights: what should I watch?