From Cinema Scope #68 (Fall 2016) The Rules of the Game: Paul Verhoeven’s Elle By Adam Nayman In Elle, Michèle More →
By Jason Anderson
The scene begins as a tableau familiar from a million movies about killers on lonely desert highways. Their khaki-coloured subordinates visible as heat-hazy shapes in the background, two serious-looking men in sheriff uniforms cast their gazes down at something below the edge of the frame. By rights, they should be looking at a map or a plan or maybe a note in the killer’s handwriting. Instead, the camera tilts down to reveal a chessboard on the hood of a car.
One lawman moves a piece.
“Can’t do that,” says his opponent in a voice as flat as the landscape around them.
“Well, you can if you want…but it’s against the rules.”
“So…what? Can I or can’t I?”
The dispute goes unresolved when their conversation is interrupted by the crackle of the police radio and bona-fide news of the killer’s whereabouts. They return to the hunt and Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber returns to the business of being a movie…though not really.
Over the course of the three features and numerous shorts, music videos, and commercials he’s made since 1997—as well as the recordings and remixes he’s released under his musical handle of Mr. Oizo—the 36-year-old Dupieux has continually provoked questions about what he can and can’t do. In fact, many of the works seem to exist just so he can figure out answers for himself. Can he or can’t he make a movie in which the murder of the film crew creates chaos and confusion among the characters? The answer is yes, in Nonfilm, the anarchic 2001 feature debut starring Dupieux’s musician friends Sebastien Tellier and Philippe Petit.
Can he or can’t he elicit rich nuances of performance and character out of an expressionless yellow puppet named Flat Eric, his star in a popular array of videos and Levi’s ads? (Ending a long hiatus, the character returned last year in a short that demonstrates Pharrell Williams’ surprising aptitude for deadpan.)
And finally, can he or can’t he create a consistently compelling feature out of the potentially one-joke premise of a killing spree by a sentient automobile tire that has psychokinetic powers?
In the hands of nearly any other filmmaker, the result probably wouldn’t match the standards expected even by the least discerning Troma Studio devotee. Indeed, when news first began to circulate online that someone could possibly make a whole movie about a psychokinetic tire, it generated the sort of bemused-slash-hostile skepticism among seen-it-all fanboys that has typically greeted the likes of Tom Six’s The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2010) or Trey Parker’s sorely underrated Cannibal! The Musical (1993). The notion of actually seeing Rubber seemed a little beside the point—surely the idea of the thing was enough, as Six’s film demonstrated.
But Rubber displays much more resilience. And though its premiere screening in a Critics’ Week slot at Cannes last May engendered a largely bewildered response along with a few derisive trade reviews that deployed various deflation-related metaphors, Dupieux’s film has gradually found the support it deserves. It has also won its maker some overdue recognition outside of France, where his reputation as burgeoning auteur was previously staked on the France-Canada coproduction Steak (2007), a vehicle for the comedy duo Eric and Ramzy. After opening with what may be cinema’s only post-Columbine comedy set-piece about a high- school shooting spree, Steak hits its real stride as a semi-futuristic, bizarrely ritualistic juvie-delinquent movie about well-coiffed, red-jacketed hoodlums—members in a hand-slapping gang called “Chivers”—who are addicted to facial reconstructive surgeries and chugging milk. Shot in the bland backdrops of rural Québec, the film is so indescribably odd that Eric and Ramzy’s French fanbase pretty much rejected it en masse. (Likewise, Dupieux’s second album as Mr. Oizo—the frenetic and confounding Moustache (Half a Scissor)—was initially deemed “unlistenable” by the company that released it in 2005. It was recently reissued on a label run by one of the disc’s staunchest admirers, Los Angeles producer Flying Lotus.)
Dupieux’s first feature in English, Rubber, is just as audacious as Steak or Nonfilm and considerably more lovable. It is, however, no easier to explain. For instance, the reasons why this particular tire has acquired its powers remain stubbornly mysterious both to us and to our surrogate “spectators” on screen, who track the tire’s progress through binoculars and provide occasional commentary—at least until their desert encampment is itself imperiled. (At one point a pile of tires on fire is glimpsed: is our protagonist wreaking vengeance on humanity?) After graduating from scorpion victims to human ones, the tire essentially becomes a rolling killing machine that leaves a growing mountain of headless corpses in its wake. Really, the only character spared from the tire’s wrath is a female traveller upon whom it seems to have a curiously erotic fixation (Roxane Mesquida, perennial favourite of Catherine Breillat).
Through a diverse variety of gambits that play out at a refreshingly leisurely pace, Dupieux continually finds new ways to not just extend the obviously limited mileage of Rubber’s premise but invert and ridicule a wide array of narrative and genre conventions. Whereas the stark desert vistas and sinister air of impending auto-geddon in the opening scenes may evoke memories of Duel (1971) (albeit with Spielberg’s big rig reduced to a single wheel) and the exploding heads are oh so Scanners (1981), the manner in which the story is continually disassembled and reassembled owes more to literary antecedents than cinematic ones. In its eagerness to step in and outside its own invented universe, Rubber declares its kinship with the most playful works of Sterne, Pirandello, and Calvino.
As you might expect, gestures of self-reflexivity are not hard to find in Dupieux’s singular brand of vulcanized absurdism. The chess match described above is destined to be most viewers’ second favourite example after an earlier sequence featuring one of the same cops, known as Lieutenant Chad. (He is played by Stephen Spinella, one of a glorious gallery of American character actors enlisted for this strange mission—others include Reno 911! regular Jack Plotnick and the great Wings Hauser.)
Here, Lieutenant Chad makes a direct address to the camera in order to provide a surprisingly handy user’s guide for any viewer who may be perplexed by the events portrayed in Rubber. He declares that movies much more famous than this one are similarly filled with events that happen for “no reason.” After using examples from E.T. (1982), Love Story (1970), and JFK (1991), Lieutenant Chad cites two more prime instances of “no reason,” instances that must be shared here as proof of Rubber’s genius.
“In the excellent Texas Chainsaw Massacre by Tobe Hooper,” he asks, “why don’t we ever see the characters go to the bathroom or wash their hands like they do in real life? Absolutely no reason. Worse, in The Pianist by Polanski, how come this guy has to hide and live like a bum when he plays the piano so well. Once again, the answer is no reason.”
Lieutenant Chad’s conclusion is this: “All great films, with no exception, contain an important element of no reason.” Yet few filmmakers have ever tried to predicate a whole body of work on that same element. In the worlds that Dupieux is dedicated to creating, “no reason” reigns supreme.
* * *
Cinema Scope: When Rubber first played at Cannes, it seemed like every viewer had a completely different idea of what the movie was. Why did it seem to take a while for some kind of consensus to emerge?
Quentin Dupieux: That’s probably because you’re free to think what you want when you watch it. You make it your own experience because obviously there is no meaning. Also, the story is slight so you just have to make your own movie in a way. For example, there are some shots where the tire is not moving at all but because you saw it being alive before, to you it’s a living object. There are, like, ten stupid shots like that where the tire is not moving at all—it is just standing there being a tire. But because you think it is alive, you think, “He must be watching something.”
Scope: At the same time, the film is surprisingly coherent. It’ll obviously throw viewers who come expecting a conventional comedy or horror movie or even a road movie. But it still abides by its own logic so it’s hard to see how anyone could be that confused.
Dupieux: I’m pretty sure people are confused because it’s too simple. When you watch a movie, you expect so much more—for example, you expect a great evolution in the characters. We are used to watching movies that are much more complicated than Rubber. It’s really simple and basic, even if it’s intelligent, too. I think that’s why people are confused.
Scope: Is it fair to interpret Lieutenant Chad’s opening “no reason” soliloquy as instructions on how to watch the rest of the movie?
Dupieux: Yeah, that’s true. It’s like a warning. The monologue was just a good way to invite the audience into my brain in a fun way. It’s like I’m saying, “Come on, it’s going to be fun. But if you don’t feel like it, go away!”
Scope: It sounds like the first audiences for Steak could have used a similar warning. Unlike Rubber, it was widely marketed as a mainstream comedy in France.
Dupieux: I don’t know if you know the two comedians Eric and Ramzy, but they are very big in France. What happened wasn’t their fault, but the producer and distributor tried to position it as a big comedy so the audience was confused in a different way. That time it was because they were expecting something really funny from the two comedians, like the stupid comedies they usually make. But my movie was a bit sad, and not just funny, and slow—it was more like Rubber. It was a movie for maybe 40 theaters and they put it out in 500 theatres in France, which was huge. So I had the wrong audience. People were expecting something else. I had a really young audience because Eric and Ramzy are popular with the kids. Now the movie is appreciated. People buy it online and enjoy it now but the release was not that fun—I had almost all very bad reviews.
Scope: In retrospect, Steak seems very much of a piece with Rubber. But again, it’s a movie with its own particular set of parameters and if an audience isn’t prepared to accept them, things are bound to get hostile.
Dupieux: That’s why I decided also to shoot Rubber in English. Before we came to Cannes, we were thinking, “Okay, the movie is for ourselves and we might just put it online if nobody wants it.” And nobody wanted the movie before we played Cannes. They were like, “Okay, you have talent, your movie is funny, but it’s not for the theatres. It’s not a real movie so we don’t want it.” But after Cannes, we sold it to 25 countries. The other thing was that Steak was only for France and French-speaking countries and that’s not a really big audience. As a musician I have a worldwide audience, even if it’s small groups of people everywhere—when I put out a record, I can still reach so many people. With Steak it was very frustrating because it was just a French movie and they didn’t even try to sell it anywhere else. We never had a subtitled version, for example, so if you saw it, it’s probably a pirated version with some subtitles done by a fan.
Scope: Actually, there are subtitles on the Canadian DVD of Steak since it was a Canadian co-production and all DVDs released here must have French and English due to the language laws.
Dupieux: Oh, wow! You’re lucky. I have so many fans asking for the subtitled version. At one point, a fan did the subtitles himself and put it online so people were able to watch and read the subtitles. I’m gonna tell them to buy the Canadian version. But you understand my point.
Scope: Unfortunately the Canadian DVD is out of print. You’ve said that the premise for Rubber was a fairly random idea but why do you think it had the mileage it did?
Dupieux: The idea does sound dumb but it’s also very interesting. To me, that’s probably because the object is empty. It has motion because it is a tire and is supposed to roll. People said to me, “Oh, you’re doing a movie about a tire—so why not do a movie about a knife or fork?” But that’s totally different because a tire is able to roll—it has motion. There’s nothing incredible in making a tire roll.
Scope: It’s like you’re only fulfilling the function of the object in the first place.
Dupieux: Exactly. And I think that’s why it works. There’s nothing incredible about that. It’s like, “Yeah, okay, it’s a tire rolling.” But the challenge was to make it alive. At one point, you even believe that it has a consciousness. Like when it is in front of the mirror, you realize, “Okay, this thing has a consciousness, he is able to remember stuff.” And everything is possible because there is a lot of emptiness around it. It is empty so we have to fill it. We can imagine what is inside because there is nothing outside, which is not the case in John Carpenter’s Christine (1983). I love this movie, but I feel that the car is humanized. It behaves like a human being in a way. I don’t how else to say it but in Rubber it’s very different—it’s like there’s a ghost in it, something supernatural. But the tire is just a tire. There’s nothing special about it.
Scope: I’m thinking it’s also a matter of consciousness, like with animals. For instance, an ant has an ant consciousness, not a human consciousness. So maybe Christine has a human consciousness while the tire just has a tire consciousness.
Dupieux: Yes, that’s right. Thank you for helping. I just woke up so I don’t have many English words available in my mind!
Scope: Do you think all this also illustrates that people are happy to imagine things in movies when they’re given the encouragement?
Dupieux: Or not happy. Some people react in a very good way. They love that space and they love the fact that the editing is not hysterical—you have some space, you have some time. You can even think about something you saw ten minutes before because you don’t have to follow much, basically. The movie is so simple. It’s up to you to decide if you want to go for it and think, “Hey I like this guy, this movie is pretty interesting, let’s go.” And it’s also really easy to hate. It’s super-easy to not follow me and to think, “The editing is slow, there’s no music, there’s not enough dialogue.” I heard so much stuff like that because people are used to a certain rhythm in movies and if you make a movie too slow, it’s disturbing to them or it seems like some strange artistic choice. It’s a bit sad because everything is possible—we are not locked into one way of making movies. So I am just trying and the good thing is that usually the smart people are happy! It’s like a good filter.
Scope: Do you think the smart people are also picking up on some of the movie’s more highbrow influences, too? It taps into a whole tradition of stories about storytelling, not to mention the nods to surrealism.
Dupieux: Yes, and I think you can enjoy this without being aware of what it is exactly. As a musician I have some young fans, between 16 and 25 years old. Some of them watched the movie and love it but they don’t know why—to them, it’s really new. So maybe now they will discover Buñuel and Dali and more stuff like that. And that’s exciting because it’s a funky way to give culture. I don’t want to be pretentious because I’m like a kid. I’m just having fun and I don’t want to be too smart about it. Obviously I made a movie about a living tire so I want to have fun. It’s all about fun. But I am glad when a 16-year-old fan or some other kid says he loves the movie and it was so new for him and it was so special. I’m very happy because I know the guy just discovered something. When you’re so young and fresh, watching a movie is still an exciting experience. And when you get old, you just get bored—you don’t want to be surprised, you want it to be the same old stuff. You expect something and if you don’t have it, then you are disappointed. That’s how old people react. Young people love to be surprised and it’s quite easy to surprise them in a way because the world produces a lot of shitty movies.
Scope: When you set out to make a film like Rubber, are you consciously trying to avoid as many familiar conventions as possible?
Dupieux: Yeah, but I’m not even a professional, really. I did this all by myself—the cinematography, the colour grading, the editing. But I don’t really know the rules. I never went to film school. So I hope that Rubber will give some ambition to young talent because they can see it and say, “Wow, it’s possible.” And the movie looks great on a screen—it’s not like an amateur movie.
Scope: It’s also part of this odd subgenre of movies and videos shot in the Californian desert by young French filmmakers with music connections. I’m thinking of Romain Gavras’ video for M.I.A.’s “Born Free” and Daft Punk’s Electroma (2006). What’s with this French fixation on Death Valley?
Dupieux: For me, the desert is the perfect place to create something because it’s an empty space. It’s like a blank piece of paper. There are no signs of reality so it’s probably easier to create a different world or a different dimension in the desert—it’s like being on another planet. That’s why I like it. Obviously you can imagine this story somewhere else. A lot of journalists in France asked me why I made it in the US and not the suburbs of Paris. I just said that it would be impossible because if this surreal tire is in a town, it has to react to reality. Suddenly it’s not the same kind of movie. It’s too realistic and you have to deal with real issues and real-life stuff. It’s totally different here.
Scope: Was it necessary for Rubber to take place in a sort of vacuum?
Dupieux: Of course. That’s part of the magic. You believe in it because it’s somewhere else. If it was set in your everyday life, it’s probably not that funny and not so magical.
Scope: As for the tire itself, it’s the latest in a series of animated objects or unlikely creatures you’ve featured in your films—for instance, it’s not so different from Flat Eric or the mud creature in your video for Alex Gopher’s “Party People.” Why do you think you’re so interested in working with puppets or objects like these?
Dupieux: That’s something I’ve asked myself and I don’t know. Obviously, it’s related to childhood and playing with dolls, or action figures for guys. When I was very young, I was already filming myself doing puppet shows with socks. There is some naïve magic to that and that’s quite affecting to me. Flat Eric is probably the best example—it’s just a bit of fur with two eyes and yet it has emotions. You just have to make it move quickly and suddenly something is working and it’s alive. It can be touching and everybody understands it because it relates to everyone’s memories of childhood. The tire was obviously related to that, to Flat Eric. It’s the same kind of animation. It’s one guy operating the tire to make it live. So yeah, it’s about childhood. I’m probably very close to the child inside me as well as my childhood memories. And I don’t want to be an adult—people get too boring after a certain age. It might sound pathetic but even if I’m 36, I want to stay like a stupid child and have fun. I don’t want to be a professional.