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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?

André Breton, author of "The Surrealist Manifesto"
André Breton, author of "The Surrealist Manifesto"

All right, I will admit that just lining up the narrative elements is not quite faithful to the actual experience of watching the movie. "Wrong" does, in fleeting moments, exude a madcap strangeness that I would call compelling, particularly the tendency of all the characters to speak their minds rather than slalom through the niceties that make up so much of human conversation. (I prefer the subtler anarchism of screwball comedies and gangster films from the 1930s, but that's material for another column.) Anyway, I'm sure Dupieux would tell me, "That's not the point, you're reading too much into it, narrative is not what Surrealism is about."

Maybe not, but that doesn't mean Surrealism can get away with not being about anything. (Breton disagreed. To him, Surrealism was "Psychic automatism in its pure state... Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.") In fact, this attention to the automatic, the unplanned, and the associative is a bit of a cop out. It allows the filmmaker, or any artist for that matter, to celebrate success as evidence that the style works, while explaining away failure as a consequence of the unintentional, the accidental, the fated. Surrealism is, or would like to be, critic-proof.

That it is not is suggested by some of the unfortunate decisions made in "Wrong": to replant the palm, to make Master Chang's face pockmarked with acid burns, to use the pizza joint as the jumping-off point for a mistaken-identity love story. These are choices, and if their intent resists logic that does not necessarily make them automatic, a revelation of some deeper truth. Indeed, if "Wrong" could be said to have one consistent flaw, it is the grimness of its "play," the forced "randomness" of its associations.

"Wrong" is, at some level, an experimentalist's attempt at disrupting the dominance of narrative, and Dupieux's inventiveness is undeniable. But I finished the movie with a new quiver of doubts about the possibilities of Surrealism, and renewed conviction that its limits are what caused it to pass out of fashion. Not only does the film's use of the surreal fail to solve "all the principal problems of life," as Breton promised, it also fails to solve the principal problem of my Friday nights: what should I watch? 

"Wrong" premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. It is now available on iTunes and arrives in theaters Friday, March 29.

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.