Mandibles: Flyweight, by David Bax
Quentin Dupieux’s last two films, Deerskin and Keep an Eye Out, represented a newfound level of intellectual effort on his part, a willingness to apply his trademark absurdity to something beyond superficial weirdness while still, of course, leaving some room for nonsense (Grégoire Ludig calmly eating a whole oyster, shell and all, in Keep an Eye Out is one of the funniest moments in any film in the last few years). His latest, Mandibles, isn’t exactly a full regression but its commitment to nothingness, resulting in something more like a sketch drawn out to feature length, still feels like a step back.
Ludig and David Marsais play Manu and Jean-Gab, two low-level schemers and high-grade dolts who set out on a straightforward delivery mission for a local criminal but are waylaid when they discover a fly the size of a pitbull in the trunk of the car they’ve stolen for the job. They come up with a nebulous plan that boils down to “Let’s train this giant fly to do our bidding” and their search for a place to conduct their insect obedience schooling leads them first to a secluded trailer near a rural highway and then to the vacation home of a rich girl who mistakes Manu for someone with whom she was a student.
Let’s address the nonsense part. Yes, a giant fly is ridiculous. It’s also potentially disgusting. But Dupieux takes a welcome left turn there and instead presents the big bug, which Jean-Gab names Dominique, as cute, quizzically turning its head from side to side, being carried around wrapped in a blanket like a baby and cowering from perceived danger. Mandibles succeeds in getting you invested in its ludicrous premise by turning up the empathy nob.
Reteaming with Ludig after Keep an Eye Out was a wise move, too. With his long hair and shabby but imposing stature, he somewhat resembles a younger Gérard Depardieu here. Once again, Dupieux finds a way to disarm us. Manu’s constant lying and fucking up ought to make him insufferable but his laidback, dunderheaded charm is too powerful.
Alas, Dupieux does manage to break whatever spell he’s cast once the men arrive at the vacation home and meet Agnès (Adèle Exarchopoulos), one of the friends of Manu’s supposed former classmate. Her character has previously suffered a traumatic brain injury and the screenplay’s characterization of her is insulting, cruel and grating. It feels like the jock making fun of the disabled kid. And it goes on forever.
Dupieux and those who have admired him for the past decade (since 2010’s Rubber, his breakout) might similarly mock me for only appreciating him when he’s in “something to say” mode. Maybe that does make me sound helplessly middlebrow but Mandibles is so meaningless that it features its two idiots finding meaning in their journey at the end as a way of highlighting how absent that meaning actually is. Even at under 80 minutes, it’s too much movie to be supported by nothing but hot air.