Part-heist movie, part-parenting comedy, Mandibles is the latest in French filmmaker Quentin Dupieux’s canon of surrealist films. This time, he’s turned away from inanimate objects - evidenced in the fixation of previous films such as Rubber (a car tyre) and Deerskin (a deerskin jacket) - and towards entomology. In Mandibles, Grégoire Ludig and David Marsais star as Manu and Jean-Gab, two ill-equipped and generally bewildered friends who discover a strangely endearing, dog-sized fly, and see in its large red eyes the beginning of a get-rich-quick scheme: training the fly to provide a drone delivery service Jeff Bezos would be proud of.
As director, writer, cinematographer, and co-composer (alongside electronic pop group Metronomy), Dupieux has complete creative control. When this works, it really works. Manu and Jean-Gab float in Dupieux’s pastel-coloured petri dish between scenarios equally amusing and improbable. A man in a caravan unceremoniously walks away mid-scene, never to be seen again. There is a fire, a unicorn bicycle, diamond teeth, accidental arson. Watching Dupieux’s films demands loyalty to the first rule of improvisation: just go with it.
Ludig and Marsais draw on a rich professional history to execute Dupieux’s vision. The two actors are well known in France for their TV comedy Palmashow, and starred together in historical comedy La Folle Histoire de Max et Léon in 2016. In Mandibles, the chemistry between the actors is seamless, epitomised by their signature handshake they call ‘toro’.
The weaker moments come when Dupieux’s script isn’t audacious enough. Manu encounters Cécile, a woman who mistakenly identifies him as an old friend from school, inviting them to stay with her family and friends (Jean-Gab is concerned that the fly – who by this point has been adorably named Dominique – will experience separation anxiety). She asks all the right questions, including where his mysterious thigh tattoo has gone, but seems to accept his noncommittal responses. Is she the voice of reason? Or just another part of the nonsensical zeitgeist?
Against the vibrancy of the central comic duo, the supporting characters also fall flat within the slower second act, set in Cécile’s house. Her brother, Serge (musician Roméo Elvis) is understandably suspicious of Manu and Jean-Gab, but his personality is limited to being tall and, well, suspicious. Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Colour) plays against type as Agnès, Cécile’s sister who experienced brain damage in a skiing accident and is only able to shout, not speak. Dupieux’s absurdist humour works best when applied with his trademark randomness; attempting to achieve similar laughs with Agnès’ brain injury leaves a sour taste.
By the end of its self-contained 77 minutes, Dupieux’s use of a pet fly as the central conceit reaches a rewarding conclusion, overshadowing its earlier flaws. Mandibles is an exercise in imagination and in trust: by suspending disbelief, the film can be a farcical joy, but it can also be a fever dream many viewers are glad to wake up from.