Over the past six years Quentin Dupieux has been working at Hong Sangsoo’s speed, churning out a film every few months. The streak kicked off in 2018 with the deranged police procedural Keep an Eye Out; since then the Frenchman’s trained his camera on a leather jacket with homicidal urges (2019’s Deerskin), an oversized fly-turned-bankable-pet (2020’s Mandibles), a married couple rewinding time through a tunnel in their new house (2022’s Incredible But True), and a team of leather-clad avengers ridding the world of monsters with the power of tobacco’s lethal substances (2022’s Smoking Causes Coughing). Tying these disparate projects isn’t just their director’s proclivity for the gonzo, but also a certain narrative economy. Dupieux––who’s written, directed, shot, and edited all his films since the 2010 breakthrough Rubber (in which a tire rolled through the U.S. on a killing spree)––likes to traffic in short, compact stories; his features barely stretch past the hour mark. “I make small movies,” he told our own Rory O’Connor after the Berlinale premiere of Incredible But True, “so the only thing I can offer to the crowd is a new angle […] a different angle on some tiny things.”
But if Dupieux’s films may be pegged as droll divertissements, doodles often so demented they seem willfully designed to prevent over-reading (“If you think I’m taking myself seriously,” he told O’Connor, “it means I failed”), the ideas that haunt them have grown in scope. No longer centered on alien creatures or sentient objects, his last two features dealt in richer allegories. An anthology film unfurling as a series of campfire yarns, Smoking Causes Coughing doubled as a testament to the magic and thrills of storytelling, while Incredible But True, with its time-travel somersaulting, sponged something of our lockdown era-longing for all the memories we never made. Yannick, Dupieux’s sixth film in six years––and the first of two to premiere in 2023 alone; it predates his Venice-bound Daaaaaali! by a couple of weeks––follows in their footsteps. It also feels like the kind of project Dupieux’s been working toward since his earliest, a film that literalizes one of his chief preoccupations: our relationship with the images we consume, those who make them, and the medium through which they’re propagated. The director’s oeuvre is stashed with all sorts of freaks defying the laws of logic and physics; Yannick, in turn, questions the rules of cinema itself. Like Rubber, it closes the space between actors and audience until they’re part of the same drama, mounting a critique of the unwritten contract that binds a filmmaker to their viewers.
Helming the insurgency is titular Yannick (Raphaël Quenard), a young man who, halfway through a boulevard play in a semi-deserted Parisian theatre, gets up from his seat to demand an explanation for what he sees as an irredeemable disaster. “You’re adding to my problems instead of making me forget mine,” he scolds the cast, (Sébastien Chassagne, Pio Marmaï, and Blanche Gardin), no less stunned by the interruption than the rest of the audience. Yannick, a parking attendant from the outskirts of Paris, has taken the day off to attend the play––a three-person overacted comedy called The Cuckold––and he takes the halfhearted results as nothing short of affront: “I feel worse than when I came in. This ain’t right.” The heckler doesn’t want his money back; he wants his money’s worth. Kicked out of the theatre, he storms back in, gun in hand, forcing the trio to star in a play he’ll be writing before the audience and cast he’s taken hostage.
Yannick’s rebellion raises some intriguing questions around our relationship with art––what we expect from it, how we process it. But there is another level coiling away underneath, a more provocative point that hinges on a similarity between The Cuckold and Yannick’s sabotage. Is the lad abducting the whole theatre that much different (gun aside, of course) than the hostage situation one willingly surrenders to upon entering a cinema? Dupieux may well balk at the idea of being taken seriously, but Yannick is one of his most thought-provoking objects to date, a film that puts the director’s comedic muscles in service of a story designed, among other things, to question our understanding of spectatorship.
Yannick takes to the stage, evicts the cast, borrows a laptop and printer, and starts working on his script. He becomes an author, a transformation that’s equal-parts hilarious and frustrating. Fear gives in to boredom as audience and actors are forced to watch a barely literate thirty-something hold them at gunpoint and grapple with his first writer’s block (one of several). But Dupieux keeps matters nimble throughout. Even as the situation inside the theatre stagnates, Yannick doesn’t; unlike its protagonist, the film never overstays a welcome. That’s in large part credit to Quenard’s turn. He plays Yannick as a spaced-out hick while imbuing his creative struggles with a curiosity and empathy that complicate what might have otherwise been a sterile caricature. In a tale that thrives off the raucous repartee between the wannabe playwright and his abducted cast, Quenard succeeds in fleshing out a character who’s both hopelessly mad and achingly vulnerable; it’s no small wonder that both sides should come across so vividly.
That Yannick feels so light on its feet, however, is ultimately a result of Dupieux’s pared-down approach. His filmmaking doesn’t draw attention to itself: he frames the proceedings through static shots with a slightly whitewashed palette and non-diegetic music that only ricochets for a few seconds midway and late into the film. Yannick may boast fewer visual flourishes than the director’s previous, but this more minimalist approach only heightens the young rebel and the film’s own fight: an attempt to change the rules of the game, to blur the divide between author and viewer, and open up the medium to the absurd––if only for 67 exuberant minutes.
Yannick premiered at the 2023 Locarno Film Festival.