Berlin Review: Quentin Dupieux’s ‘Incredible But True’

Everyone knows that rule No. 1 in movies — especially, but not exclusively, horror movies — is that nobody should ever go down to a basement. Not long into Quentin Dupieux’s snappy little entertainment Incredible But True, premiering as a Berlinale Special Gala at the Berlin Film Festival, a couple inspecting a house for sale is invited to descend to what the ferrety agent promises is the jewel of the property. “Oh no,” says Marie (Léa Drucker), “we’re not basement people.”

And that’s the last sensible thing she’ll say — because, of course, she and her dependable husband Alain (Alain Chabat) do what the agent tells them. Down to the basement they go. There is a trapdoor, a ladder underneath it disappears into darkness. Down again. They could never have predicted that what they discover at the bottom of that ladder will obsess Marie to the point of madness.

Alain, meanwhile, is a dealing with the multiple whims of his boss Gégé (Benoît Magimel) and a succession of catastrophes involving a power-steerage electronic penis that, along with Gégé’s car, proves to be unpredictably combustible. That basement! Going there was always going to be a mistake.

Dupieux is the sole maestro of his own personal genre, in which an unlikely object turns on an assemblage of hapless humans and creates low-budget havoc. In Rubber (2010), a homicidal tire runs riot — not an entire car, mind you, just a tire. So cheap, so easy to roll on to set! In Deerskin (2019), Jean Dujardin is possessed by the twitching evil somehow embedded in a second-hand western jacket. You just never know what might be out to get you.

Last year, the most purely enjoyable film at the Venice International Film Festival was Dupieux’s Mandibles, about a couple of petty thieves who steal a car, only to discover that the trunk contains a live housefly about the size of a Shetland pony. Despite its revolting eating habits, they decide they can domesticate it, teach it tricks and become France’s answer to P.T. Barnum.

Of course, one hallmark of the Dupieux genre is the way it borrows scraps from more established categories. Incredible But True (aka Incroyable Mais Vrai) takes a dollop of haunted house, mixes it up with some familiar sci-fi elements — time travel, machines with minds of their own and invasions by marauding insects — and adds a dash of Horrible Bosses in the person of Gégé who has reached the stage of life that for some men signals a need for leather trousers, a red sports car and a rapid turnover of interchangeable young girlfriends. The usually glamorous Magimel, a newcomer to the Dupieux stable of actors, is clearly having huge fun with this, although surely anyone in a Dupieux film is having fun.

That is not say Dupieux isn’t serious. At its core, Incredible But True is a film about vanity and madness. Both Marie and Gégé are terrified of getting old, of losing their looks, of opportunities missed. If she could make herself younger, Marie says in her escalating frenzy of dissatisfaction, she could be a top model. She could be famous! Alain murmurs something about those women with stretched skin, but it hardly needs saying: the analogy is staring us in the face, so to speak. Gégé is so fixated on maintaining his towering virility that he doesn’t care if the working parts are no longer his. At the nether end of their various fears lies death, of course. Ultimately, that’s what lurks in everyone’s basement.

That’s all in there, but there is no pause for reflection while the film is happening. Dupieux may have more money to burn than he once did — he does literally burn a car, for example — but he retains a resolutely cheap aesthetic that gives everything the look of a TV soap shot at speed. You can imagine him telling his crew that no lighting set-up should take longer than 10 minutes. Friends are pulled in to help crew; I am almost certain he has cast his own dog.

It’s a fast skate to the finishing line, too. After building the tension around the mystery in the basement with precise comic timing, withholding information to the point of frustration before drip-feeding us a bit more in one scene after the another, Dupieux tips over the precipice into a rush. Years of events are collapsed into a long montage to fast-track us to resolution; it’s as if he can’t be bothered telling us any more stories. These chopped-up glimpses of what happens next certainly fizz with energy — there is no chance of getting bored — but I think he short-changes himself. The film is only 74 minutes long. He could have at least taken us down to the basement a couple more times. I definitely would have been up for it.

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