Handling writing, directing, editing, and cinematography duties on all his films — all while maintaining a parallel career in the music business — Quentin Dupieux has become the arthouse’s most reliable purveyor of artisanally-produced, small-batch surrealism, showing up at one of the major festivals nearly every year for another bit of deadpan fun.
From 2010’s “Rubber,” which followed a killer tire, to 2019’s “Deerskin,” which followed a killer jacket, to 2020’s “Mandibles,” which followed a more-benevolent-but-unsettlingly-giant fly, Dupieux’s modus operandi has never really changed, with each new film enacting the same experiment to see just how far a single absurdist premise can travel (counted for time, usually about 75 minutes). And if “Incredible but True” (running time: 74 minutes) fits neatly within that overall filmography, it also builds on the uncommon tenderness that made “Mandibles” stand out to rather delightful effect.
Mind you, sweetness is something of a new flavor for Dupieux, who launched his career with 2001’s bluntly titled “Nonfilm” and bolstered his international reputation with projects named “Wrong” and “Reality” (tongue, in this case, fully in cheek). The director staged those earlier works as impish provocations, using his brand of anything-can-happen absurdism to poke and prod and gently challenge audience expectations. With “Mandibles,” the filmmaker flipped the switch, moving from inherently standoffish anti-comedy to bring the audience in on the joke. He continues in that register here.
Led by French sketch-comedy pioneer Alain Chabat (who also starred in Dupieux’s “Reality”) and actor Léa Drucker (“Custody”), “Incredible but True” furthers that wooly Yes And approach, building on a time-travel conceit so delightfully inane that once the characters buy-in — which they do, immediately — the audience has no choice but to follow.
Now, a warning to those reading: To reveal the conceit — which is both the foundation upon which the slight narrative is built, but also delivered as an early-in-film punchline — does run the risk of spoiling at least one delicious laugh, so please, take this off-ramp: “Incredible but True” is a surprisingly thoughtful effort that mixes and matches from “Being John Malkovich” to the Adam Sandler vehicle “Click” as it tackles middle-age malaise. Without a hint of sentimentality, the director expands the film’s absurdist premise towards surprisingly reflective ends, making this latest effort a real gem in Dupieux’s filmography. If you’ve read this far, you would probably enjoy it.
Still with us? Then let’s drop the cagey routine. The film follows middle-aged couple Alain (Chabat) and Marie (Drucker), who discover in the basement of their recently purchased suburban home a hole in the ground that opens a very particular portal through time. Those that climb into the hole emerge exactly twelve hours into the future and three days younger. And if the possibilities of such a tool aren’t exactly endless, the portal could promise more substantial rejuvenation to those willing to become unstuck in time.
If Dupieux takes his premise seriously enough to imagine its marital and psychological side-effects, he doesn’t come at the material like Jose Luis Borges. Not when there’s plenty of fun to be had at the expense of Alain’s louche boss Gérard (Benoit Magimel), who has opted to fight the slow decay of age and to impress his younger partner Jeanne (Anaïs Demoustier) by — shall we say — surgical means. Without giving any more of the plot away (not that there’s that much), the filmmaker finds minor parallels between the two couples, using his weakest voice possible to warn against the dangers of rejuvenation culture, while mostly playing up the human folly for laughs.
On that front, leads Chabat and Drucker ably take to the task, adhering to farce’s golden rule by playing things a straight as can be, while Magimel fills in the margins with outsize comic swagger. Like nearly all of Dupieux’s previous work, “Incredible but True” stretches a high-concept, low-execution premise about as far as it can go, wrapping things up the nanosecond before they outstay their welcome. But unlike his previous work, this film leaves the viewer with a pleasant, and almost bittersweet aftertaste; it almost leaves you wanting more. Which is just as well: Dupieux has already wrapped his next feature film.
“Incredible but True” premiered at the 2022 Berlin Film Festival.