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Now and Then: Quentin Dupieux's 'Wrong' Exposes the Limits of Surrealism

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! March 26, 2013 at 3:21PM

Drafthouse Films, the distributor of Quentin Dupieux's bizarre new film, "Wrong," describes the French director and electronic musician (stage name: Mr. Oizo) as "one of the world’s most fearless cinematic surrealists." The surreal does indeed seem to be Dupieux's preferred register, but this leads me to a trickier question. Should we care?
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Jack Plotnick in Quentin Dupieux's "Wrong."
Jack Plotnick in Quentin Dupieux's "Wrong."

Drafthouse Films, the distributor of Quentin Dupieux's bizarre new film, "Wrong," describes the French director and electronic musician (stage name: Mr. Oizo) as "one of the world's most fearless cinematic surrealists." The surreal does indeed seem to be Dupieux's preferred register, but this leads me to a trickier question. Should we care?

Surrealism isn't exactly fashionable anymore. Whether you consider it a movement, an aesthetic, or a politics -- and wherever you place the dividing lines between these three -- art critics agree that Surrealism grew out of Dadaist anti-rationalism in the terrible years of World War I and petered out somewhere between the end of World War II and the Sixties, replaced by other, fresher radicalisms.

The poet Guillaume Apollinaire coined the term, but it was Andre Breton, writing "The Surrealist Manifesto" in 1924, who brought it to prominence (and proceeded to be its domineering life force until his death in 1966). It was this eccentric, absurdist creed that came to mind watching "Wrong," especially Breton's "Encyclopedia" entry for Surrealism:

Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all, all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.


A working definition of what Dupieux might be up to begins to take shape: unexpected associations and juxtapositions (a Southern California landscaper speaking French-accented English); dreamscapes (a dog riding the bus, reunited with his owner); resolute playfulness (heavy downpours inside a nondescript office building). So close to Breton's definition is Dupieux's version of Surrealism, in fact, that it resembles a relic from another age -- a curiosity found rummaging in culture's closet, mothballs and all.  

"Wrong," which Dupieux wrote, directed, photographed, edited, and scored, follows Dolph Springer (Jack Plotnick, of "Reno 911") as he searches for his lost dog, Paul.

To be frank, that's about as far as synopsis can go. I could tell you that the palm tree in Dolph's backyard mysteriously becomes a pine. I could tell you that he encounters a shadowy figure named Master Chang -- played by well-known character actor William Fichtner, layering on so many oddities of inflection, accent, and movement that the performance becomes a black hole in the center of the movie, absorbing any light that approaches its orbit. I could tell you that the film includes an extended deconstruction of a pizza place flyer. But I could not promise you that any of these constitute "important plot points" or "illuminating details" or "useful ironies," because then I would be lying. 

This article is related to: Now and Then, Reviews, Sundance Film Festival, Genres, Independents, comedy, Directors


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.