A field in the middle of the countryside. A man, dressed only in bright red underpants is conducting an orchestra. As he sees the police cars approaching, he first sidles, then runs away at full pelt. But he is too slow. The police catch him and take him away.
This is the opening scene of Keep an Eye Out, the new film by Quentin Dupieux, better known to some of us as the man behind Mr. Oizo. It has nothing – and everything – to do with the rest of the film. Just as with the allegedly humorous singing rodent, the amount which you enjoy the film depends a great deal on how much you feel in on the joke.
The “real” film starts in a police station with 1970s cop show beige lighting. A man has come in to report a corpse that he has found in a pool of blood. Expecting a simple short interview, he hasn’t eating but as the detective taking his evidence keeps going off on random tangents, he becomes increasingly irritated and hungry.
As he is asked to account for his actions, the film shows the scenes that he is describing. When a woman that he has met in “the present” turns up, he tells her that he recognises her from the future. Soon, the investigating detective is also standing next to him, being observed by his nosey neighbours.
Yes, it is that sort of film. Absurdist and revelling in its own absurdity. Now, absurdism can be hugely entertaining and funny – for example, people often forget how absolutely hilarious the lines in Waiting for Godot are – but the writer has to earn your right to indulge them. And maybe it was just the mood I was in, this evening I just couldn’t make that extra step.
I realise that I can end up sounding like That person who asks what Hellzapoppin is supposed to be about, or what it is that makes the Who’s on First sketch funny. If you don’t get it, you’re not going to benefit from having someone explain it to you and thus taking all the vitality out of the jokes.
In a sense, I feel like leaving it there. Many people in the cinema tonight were laughing throughout the film, and it seems to have received a largely favourable critical response. You either get it or you don’t. This evening, I didn’t. Maybe if I’d have gone in a different mood, I’d have been laughing louder than anyone else.
But I’d like to take a stab at why I think I’d still have some problems with a film that just feels a little pleased with itself. I can imagine a marketing campaign, calling it a great post modernist exercise, if we still call things post modernist. Like much post modernist thought, it seems detached from reality – it calls into question the rules and conventions that we use, but rather than drawing any great conclusions, it just laughs at doing something differently.
This is the child pulling down its trousers in front of the church altar, There is a vague sense of being somehow transgressive but knowing that your parents will be embarrassed is your only real motivation.
So here’s the question. If a film sets out to be alienating and annoying and you leave the cinema feeling alienated and annoyed, is it a success? Because I could often see what it was trying to do, and was impressed with it on some sort of level, but it just felt too shallow and devoid of humanity.
One completely different theory. This year, I’ve had a negative response to quite a few French comedy. Now, it may be a cultural thing, and it may be that I have no sense of humour but it could be this. Over here, most French films are shown synchronised into German, which is not my first language. So, I’m often half a beat behind the punchline, which is a particular problem with films which include a lot of wordplay.
So as this film careered in all sorts of different directions, I wasn’t on board quickly enough to appreciate the disarming little stupidities. By the time I was processing one joke, 5 others had come along and my brain couldn’t really cope.
Or it could be that the film just wasn’t as substantial and clever as it thinks it is. There is one particular moment, shortly before the end when if effectively says “and then I woke up and it was all a dream, and you think “Oh, come on!” And we still remember Mr. Oizo, and there are some things which we don’t forgive easily.