The latest oddball production from Parisian filmmaker Quentin Dupieux premieres at UW Cinematheque on September 29.
A middle-class French couple (Alain Chabat and Léa Drucker) tours a house in the suburbs that they are thinking of buying. A real estate agent (Stephané Pezerat) mentions how the house has one unusual feature in the basement that they’re welcome to test out. They do, and the implications of the device convince them to purchase the house. This is how director Quentin Dupieux establishes intrigue for his latest feature, Incredible But True (2022), which finds a Madison premiere screening at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 29, at UW Cinematheque (4070 Vilas Hall).
Writer-director Dupieux draws out the reveal of the device’s ramifications for an exaggeratedly long time (especially given the film is only 74 minutes), clearly reveling in poking fun at the idea of suspense itself. But the device’s function is certainly fantastical, even if the on-screen presentation is decidedly low-budget. It nonetheless qualifies as a foray into the sci-fi genre, with the depiction relying more on dialogue than narrative framework. Think Coherence (2013) or The Man From Earth (2007) by way of Eugène Ionesco, rather than a CGI-laden blockbuster.
Dupieux excels at pushing genre setups into absurd territory while his characters accept that very absurdity as the mundane or obvious. In the past, Dupieux subverted the slasher genre in his international breakthrough Rubber (2010), the police procedural in Keep An Eye Out (2018), the police in general in Wrong Cops (2013), and artistic inspiration itself in Reality (2014) and Deerskin (2019). If there’s a central idea he explores in Incredible But True and other work, it’s based on the question of any of us having an identity beyond social expectation and the technology we use and abuse. On the other hand, rarely has a director given as explicit a statement of intent as the opening speech in Rubber: many things in art and life happen for no reason. It’s up to the viewer to assign meaning to events.
This shaggy-dog story centers on the aforementioned French couple, Alain (Alain Chabat) and Marie (Léa Drucker), who decide to buy this unusual house. Soon, Marie starts obsessively using its device to the exclusion of all else, despite warnings from the real estate agent and evidence of dangerous side effects. Alain keeps his head down and continues his work as an insurance agent, only socializing with his friend Gérard (Benoît Magimel), who also happens to be his boss.
After moving in, the couple invites Gérard and his girlfriend Jeanne (Anaïs Demoustier) over for dinner. They have a technological announcement of their own: Gerard has just had a smartphone-controlled electronic penis installed. In response, Alain almost reveals their own technological windfall in the basement, but Marie stops him, wanting to keep it entirely for themselves. Gérard’s difficulties both with the perceived lack of awe for and technical issues with his new genitals form a narrative parallel to Alain and Marie’s, highlighting the modern Icarus-cautionary tale framework that Dupieux operates within here.
However, trying to find some high-minded context for Incredible But True may be overthinking it. Dupieux’s intent seems to be to amuse rather than inform. Human folly naturally provides good comedic material, and of course, a built-in resolution to the story. That’s not to say humans have a monopoly on knowing a good thing: even a neighborhood cat gets in on using the device.
The film’s score is grounded in classical tradition with a modern twist, drawing exclusively from the 1976 album Jon Santo Plays Bach (Synthesized Electrons), with Bach being played on homemade synthesizers by a German physicist using an alias. Other aspects of the film mix different eras of technology as well, like the opening credits playing over the classic ’80s arcade game Asteroids. But it’s actually an emulated version on a laptop.
The history of humanity might well just be the history of technology, but the same basic drives will forever keep leading us to the same mistakes. Those who refuse to learn from history are fair game for ridicule. Nevertheless, those who already know how things will turn out may be relieved at the opportunity to reuse a punchline.