The Unknown Man of Shandigor: Doomsday, by David Bax
It’s impossible not to think of Dr. Strangelove while watching Jean-Louis Roy’s The Unknown Man of Shandigor (newly restored by the Cinémathèque suisse and available on VOD now). Released only three years after Kubrick’s film, it’s a sure thing Roy was thinking of it too. The movie’s about an eccentric scientist in a wheelchair who’s invented a game-changing nuclear device, for heaven’s sake.
And the comparisons don’t end there. But what differentiates Shandigor from Strangelove is its unbridled excess. Roy takes Kubrick’s use of extreme angles and wide lenses and goes even higher, lower and wider. It’s as if the film was made with future midnight/cult audiences in mind. In reality, though, it’s because of movies like this that those audiences even exist today.
That exaggeration applies to the goofiness of the comedy too. A bit in which a spy instructor demonstrates various disguises goes about as far as that premise can go (and miraculously avoids blackface in the process). Of course, bigger doesn’t always mean funnier but a reversed shot that makes it looks like a man pulls a monocle out of his pocket and expertly flips it directly up into place on his eye is too hilarious to be denied.
In a helpful move, Roy employs onscreen text serving as, essentially, chapter titles that describe what the following section is loosely going to be about. This is a very kind thing to do as the plot is overwhelmingly busy. A scientist (Daniel Emilfork) invents a device that will neutralize nuclear weapons and the intelligence agencies of every global power on the planet want to use it for their own means. That means dozens of characters, all of whom are speaking French no matter which nationality they are meant to be.
It’s hard to tell who’s who, with the exception of one character who happens to be played by Serge Gainsbourg. We’re even treated to a song; an infectiously silly number called “Bye Bye Mr. Spy.” Calling The Unknown Man of Shandigor confusing or nonsensical, however, should not be mistaken for a criticism.
On the contrary, the chaos is kind of the point. As with Strangelove, Shandigor viciously mocks the humorless government officials who are meant to keep the world safe, depicting them as buffoons driven by fragile egos and a self-conscious desire to look as cool as the spies in the movies. Things get literally surreal from time to time–a living room has a floor of sand from which trees sprout–but it’s just as baffling to consider the possibility that humanity has little but dumb luck to thank for not having yet wiped itself off the face of the planet.