Mandibles (Mandibules)

France (2020) Dir. Quentin Dupieux

Flies. Nobody likes them – except spiders and that is only because they feed on them. They interrupt our daily lives by buzzing around our heads as we work or watch the TV; they ruin our food by leaving goo on it; and they can’t even figure out how to fly out of the open window they got in by! Can anyone find a purpose for them?

Manu (Grégoire Ludig) is a hopeless slacker offered the chance to earn 500 euro to pick up and deliver a briefcase on behalf of a man named Michel-Michel (Philippe Dusseau). The instructions are clear: put the briefcase in the boot of the car and don’t look in it. Manu steals a rusty old Mercedes then stops off at the petrol station where his equally dim friend Jean-Gab (David Marsais) works, and takes him along for the ride.

On the way to the pick-up, they hear a strange noise in the boot and when investigating, they discover a giant fly! Jean-Gab suddenly has the idea of taming the fly, and then train it to rob banks for them. Manu is onboard and leaves the training to Jean-Gab who names the fly Dominique. When their car breaks down, a group of rich friends pick them up and invite them back to their holiday house. Can they keep Dominique a secret?

Anyone already familiar with the works of Quentin Dupieux shouldn’t be at all surprised to find his name attached to such a daft concept, yet they’d also know he has a knack of making them work too. Mandibles, like its predecessor Deerskin, is aware the premise has a finite shelf life, hence the racy 77-minute run time which should sound perfunctory but actually covers a lot of ground.

Essentially a comedy of errors, it works on the same level as classic irreverent humour like the perennial Dead Parrot sketch – in this case, instead of training a dog or tiger to steal, it is a large fly. Granted, it sounds like an idea which might have originated in a dream or after the consumption of alcohol or other intoxicants, but is it any weirder than a boy being bitten by a radioactive spider who can now climb walls?

Because of the brisk run time, things like details are in short supply, so it is best just to run with whatever Dupieux gives us, and trust me when I say, you’ll enjoy it more this way. For example, Manu has a quirk that wherever he sleeps, he always ends up far away from his original resting place; when sleeping in the car he somehow manages to wake up on the tarmac outside. How and why, we may never know.

With the charm and subtlety of a house brick, Manu and Jean-Gab are resourceful – they tape Dominique’s wings down so she can’t fly away – but gormless in a sort of Gallic Bill and Ted way but older and less catchphrase-reliant, aside from the leitmotif of their Toro handshake. When the car breaks down, the only reason they are saved is that Cécile (India Hair) mistakes Manu for an old school friend.

Cécile invites them to her family holiday home where she is staying with her brother and some friends, including Agnes (Adèle Exarchopoulos). Following a skiing accident, Agnes has been left brain damaged and can only speak in a loud voice and takes everything very seriously. She becomes a thorn in the side of Jean-Gab as she suspects he is hiding something in his room; she thinks it is a dog, prompting Mau to find one to throw her off the scent.

Normally, I might have concluded that last sentence with the stock phrase “with hilarious consequences” and I will concede there are some dark laughs to be had but at the same time, it might not be for all tastes. The character of Agnes I had trouble with because it seems as if we are supposed to find comic capital in her being brain damaged and her thick loud voice.

However, she does become sympathetic later on as the only person who knows the truth but nobody believes her, thinking it is a side effect of her condition that she saw a huge fly in the bedroom. Exarchopoulos I presume had fewer misgivings about this role and saw it as a chance to play against type, and is convincing in her portrayal whilst being able to mine the humanity of Agnes beyond this sadly exploitative joke figure.

Ludig and Marsais are a TV comedy double act in France, explaining the fluid and natural chemistry between them which serves as the lynchpin of the film. Covering both physical and verbal comedy, they are a smooth fit to play these two walking disasters – Manu manages to burn a caravan down whilst cooking breakfast – and despite being blatantly gauche, never feel incongruous with their straighter (Agnes excepted) co-stars.

Dominique is a fabulous creation, an animatronic puppet and not CGI which immediately improves its credence as a tangible cast member.  Her size – roughly that of a small child – invites conjecture that she might be of alien origin, the large bulbous eyes add much to this effect, as do they hairy spindly legs. And before you ask, no, we don’t know how she got in the boot of the car and our two hapless protagonists don’t seem intent on finding out either.

Quirky humour is often hard to get across to others if they fail to miss the hook when it is first thrown out, something I imagine Dupieux is aware of hence the brevity of his films, so he sets out his stall straight away. By the time Mandibles draws to its abrupt close, it doesn’t seem like we’ve watched a surreal comedy, just one where another toaster has been replaced by another dead parrot.

Short, sharp, and very amusing, I would say the time flies by but…

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