“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”–Philip K. Dick
DIRECTED BY: Quentin Dupieux
FEATURING: Alain Chabat, Kyla Kenedy, Jon Heder, Jonathan Lambert, Élodie Bouchez, Eric Wareheim, John Glover
PLOT: A young girl (improbably named “Reality”) spies a videotape inside the entrails of a wild hog her father shoots. Meanwhile, Jason, a French-speaking novice director, gets the green light for a screenplay he is working on about killer television sets, but only if he can find an Oscar-caliber scream of pain to insert in the film. Jason’s producer is also funding a fiction film from a former documentary director who, coincidentally, is using Reality as his lead actress, while the stressed would-be filmmaker finds he is having nightmares that are increasingly difficult to wake from.
- Réalité, Quentin Duepieux’s fifth film, was a French/Belgian co-production. The story is set in southern California, although many of the characters primarily speak French.
- Although Duepieux usually scores his own films, the only music in this film is a repeated phrase from Philip Glass’s “Music with Changing Parts.”
- The male Award Presenter in Jason’s dream is Michel Hazanavicius, Academy Award-winning director of The Artist (the female Presenter is Rubber‘s Roxane Mesquida).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Jason’s recurring dream where he is at an awards ceremony, awaiting announcement of the award for best groan in movie cinema history. He’s the lone human in a sea of blank-faced mannequins in tuxes.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Viscera video; eczema on the inside; this film doesn’t exist yet
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In his short five film career, Quentin Dupieux has established a distinctive—and divisive—comic vision. His absurd sense of humor takes killer tires, dog-turd detectives, and electronica-snob cops and tosses them into twisted, self-aware scenarios. Reality sees him take a darker turn, venturing deeper into his subconscious, foraging for nightmares.
U.S. theatrical trailer for Reality
COMMENTS: In Reality, a mother reads a bedtime story to her daughter, Reality, that describes the events of the day that just happened. The tale ends with the line, “that night, the little girl had funny nightmares.” “Funny nightmares” is Reality’s mission statement. Quentin Dupieux had technically made one horror/comedy already. Rubber was about a serial killer who just happened to be a tire, and spoofed slasher tropes in an arch and detached way. But, with its ludicrous whitewall villain, Rubber very much listed to the comedy side of the scale. Reality is far more balanced; the jokes take longer to develop, and are sometimes conspicuous mostly by their absence. We are asked to laugh not at a killer tire, but at a videotape found in the torso of a slaughtered pig—something impossible, as the girl’s father patiently explains when she describes what she saw, but a scenario that is slightly and more mysteriously “real” then sentient car parts. The air of Reality is unsettling, the atmosphere as eerie as it is absurd.
Dupieux’s movies have always exploited dream logic, but this is the first one to explicitly orient itself in the landscape of dreams (or more specifically, of nightmares). Most of us have had the feeling of waking up from a dream, only to realize moments later that we are actually still asleep, still dreaming. Anxiety arises; we are trapped! Reality uses that dream-within-a-dream panic as its basic structure. There is a moment when Eric Wareheim’s character is driving down the street in a jeep wearing a dress, and the little girl Reality stares at him. A strange scene, but not so out of place in a Dupieux movie; the director inserts a joke at the end to reassure us this is business as usual. We soon find out the entire sequence was from a dream Wareheim’s character is relating to his therapist. Later, Reality discusses the incident as if she really saw it. This revelation suggests multiple possibilities: maybe Reality can see into others’ dreams, or maybe the sequence really happened, and Wareheim is either mistaking waking reality for a dream or lying to his therapist. Of course, the entirety of Reality could be nothing more than Reality’s (or someone else’s) dream; or, there could be no reality here other than the movie Zog is filming (which stars Reality). But Zog himself may only be a character in Reality’s dream… Reality loops back on itself (herself?) time and time again. It identifies the plasticity of dreams with the plasticity of movies.
Like Dupieux’s other films, Reality is a comedy, but this time it is an extremely uneasy one. There are only a few obvious trailer-ready jokes, mostly involving the screening of the movie-inside-a-movie, “Waves.” The strangeness of the pitch meeting about that movie, which revolves around killer TV sets, comes from Dupieux’s own experience of the surreality of trying to sell a film about a killer tire; the producer’s response, to obsess about the necessity of finding the absolute perfect scream to put across the horror of the situation, tops the script itself in absurdity. (There are also in-jokes for Dupieux’s fans—and who else will be seeing Reality?—like the presence of ads for the unlikely sequel, Rubber 2). Some jokes would fit comfortably inside another of Dupieux’s awkward comedies. A minor character, a cooking show host who dresses as a rat, scratches himself constantly, believing he has a rash, but no one else can see it. When he visits a dermatologist, the doctor’s face is covered in hideous rosaceous outbreak. Still, it is noteworthy that the number of jokes, and attempted jokes, in Reality pales in comparison to the other films in the series; and, once the gags have been explicitly recast as lurches from the stumbling dream-logic of nightmares, they take on a more sinister aspect.
What makes Reality distinctive in Dupieux’s oeuvre is the way it blends horror and humor. Rubber was set in a B-horror universe (one similar to “Waves”), but there was no terror in its exploding heads, no attempt to generate fear. There is not even a joke in Reality‘s first scene: a man shoots a wild boar and carries the corpse to his truck; his little girl waits calmly inside. The opening sets our expectations for horror, not comedy. The first appearance of the bright blue VHS tape, first seen sliding out of the boar into a slop bucket with its entrails, is strange, but without being funny. When Reality creeps out to retrieve the tape from the garbage, the camera focuses on a teddy bear in a swing, while repetitive Philip Glass scales play (like Goblin and John Carpenter, Dupieux recognizes the power of minimalist music to provoke anxiety). Along with the parents’ denial of the girl’s eyewitness account, these strategies are horror movie staples, but they do not appear here as parodies. They support a mounting existential fear, and the jokes serve as tension-breakers rather than as the movie’s raison d’être.
Although there is much strangeness in Reality‘s first hour, the final third goes totally bananas, beginning with Jason’s realization that the movie in his head, one that he has not yet filmed or even scripted, is somehow already playing at the local cinema. The joke is the impetus for a nightmare. Jason suddenly realizes that he’s in a dream, one that he can’t get out of. But how long has he been in this dream? And is it even his dream—does he even exist? To shock himself out of the hallucination, he resorts to violence, and even checks in to an in-nightmare mental hospital. The fear Dupieux plays to here isn’t the fear of monsters, whether they be killer tires that explode heads through telekinesis, or killer TVs that explode heads using high-frequency microwaves. It’s the fear of losing one’s grip on reality, of being unable to distinguish what is real and what isn’t. And he refuses to grant us a resolution to that epistemological discomfort.
Can you track where each nightmare ends, and distinguish Reality‘s various dreams from each other, and from the movies within the movie? If so, you are missing the point. During the rushes of Reality‘s second film-within-a-film, producer Bob asks director Zog (significantly, an ex-documentarian) why he’s chosen a particular angle to watch Reality as she finally screens the hog belly tape. The shot is badly framed, he objects, because you can’t see what’s on the screen, only her reaction. Zog’s justification is a simple “because it’s beautiful.” Bob is unimpressed: “Okay, it’s beautiful, but we need to know what’s on the tape!” The producer is stuck in a Philistine, bottom-line reality, one that Reality rejects. “Reality” is merely the raw material from which movies are constructed; it’s the beginning, not the end. Reality is a Chinese puzzle box of nightmares hidden inside of jokes hidden inside of nightmares. It’s the labyrinth itself that interests Dupieux, not the exit. He focuses his camera on the walls of the maze.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Quentin Dupieux’s mind-numbingly unfunny attempt to apply slippery dream logic to filmmaking. Most people don’t laugh in their dreams, and they won’t here, either. Weird is easy, and in Dupieux’s case, it’s what this cult helmer’s supporters have come to expect from his small but nonconformist oeuvre, accepting even lazy eccentricity as a welcome break from cookie-cutter cinema.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (festival screening)
“…nothing—not even the nods to Mulholland Dr.—suggests that Dupieux’s motivated by anything more than a hankering to make something weird and funny. He succeeds on the first part, and fitfully accomplishes the second.”–
“…the accumulation of weird incidents and fake-outs doesn’t lead anywhere productive. That’s the problem with Dupieux’s vacant brand of surrealism: If you just keep pulling out the rug, there will never be anything to stand on.”–Scott Tobias, The Dissolve (contemporaneous)
Reality – a film by Quentin Dupieux – The largest of the three “official” sites, with cast bios, stills, and two film clips
diaphana * realite – The official French site, with the French language trailer and stills
Reality – There’s not much at US distributor IFC Midnight’s site except for the English-language trailer
IMDB LINK: Reality (2014)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Quentin Dupieux’s REALITY – Interview with Dupieux by Sam Fragoso for Fandor
DVD INFO: Somehow, the rights to Reality got into the hands of Shout! Factory, who issued an uncharacteristically bare-bones DVD/Blu-ray combo pack (buy) with no special features.
Reality is also available to rent or download on-demand (rent or buy).