People who have never consumed psychedelics always get the worst parts about them wrong. Granted, they can leave you physiologically impaired enough to consider bajas formal wear in the long run or the SuperJail! ensemble tearing through your nervous system while the psilocybin’s prancing in your bloodstream, but if you’re conscientious and measured about what you’re contending with, these are easily avoidable outcomes. The worst is the outcome you can’t avoid the next day. When I was a teenager who wouldn’t shut up about Sung Tongs (TMT Review), the tax and charge came when the synesthesia made exit stage left but didn’t leave the building, sidling in the scenery and moving shit around. The trial was the anxiety the next day, saddled in quotidian surroundings with the picked-over carcass of the drug tapping you on the shoulder occasionally, telling you, “You think it’s all the same, but it’s not all the same.” Completely innocuous details like the angles on your stairs, the slight off-kilter cadence in your girlfriend’s voice, the font size of the numbers on your wall clock: these beige components of life that don’t even merit cognizance in the sober brain become foreign and jarring, making you stare around the room for awhile and wonder how long everything’s been this off. Quentin Dupieux’s new film Wrong takes a premise and narrative so simple — a man losing his dog — then tailor fits and drapes the story in this implacable absurdity, presenting the spectacle like Buñuel and Dalí in nun outfits on bikes and giving you weird looks for asking what’s going on.
Since his days as French electro royalty Mister Oizo on Ed Banger, Dupieux reinvented himself as an auteur with a palate for the surreal. When asked about how he believes an American audience perceives his films in an interview on Abus de Ciné (I speak French, get at me), Dupieux comments “I think Americans find being ‘foreign’ very pleasing… For them I’m clearly a foreigner and I bring something strange that’s not their run-of-the-mill, that doesn’t resemble other films.” This is part true and part affectation. When considering not only Wrong but Dupieux’s filmography, there’s clear heritage to surrealist French cinema monolith Buñuel. Dupieux dodges comparisons in interviews (including ours), but the feeling is similar to the pretentious kid at school showing up in an old-ass tweed blazer and swearing up and down it’s not his dad’s. Anyway, his stance on Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie is erroneous here. Wrong constructs a world simultaneously familiar and alien, drops in the main character, Dolph (Jack Plotnick, as the most rational and sane presence in the film), and lets him flail around in the fishbowl for an hour and a half. In Rubber (TMT Review), Dupieux set fire to the fourth wall and touted the relationship of audience to work like a weapon, making you the butt of the joke through the entire experience. In Wrong, he contains and focuses his irrational mechanisms and throws them all at poor Dolph while he haphazardly tries to find his dog. As a spectator, the result is hilarious, like watching a really fucked-up, intricate version of Candid Camera.
This premise of Dolph trying to find his dog is really only in place as a punching bag of linear narrative for Dupieux to throw shot after illogical shot at. What makes this film really comic is all of the characters, acting both as agents and victims of absurdity, play their roles with the gravity of a PTA board. One of the few times anyone actually laughs in Wrong is when Dolph’s gardener, Victor (Eric Judor), wakes up in a glass-topped casket in the ground pealing cackles of relief while dirt piles in his grave. There’s an entire storyline between Dolph, Victor, and the cotton-candy sickly sweet Stepford Daughter of a pizza cashier Emma (Alexis Dziena) that’s reminiscent of Bergman circa Persona, cycling character identity and plot continuity like a merry-go-round on meth.
This triangle is only one of three major areas of character interaction in the film: Dolph’s domestic life, Dolph’s place of work, and Dolph’s interactions with the weird, cultish organization that jacked his dog. I’ll leave it to you to parse through Dolph’s life as it happens, but the device that’s so well executed in each act is the point of reference from the first paragraph: minute alterations in scenery, dialogue, and action that bemuse and intrigue. In Wrong’s opening minutes, Dolph is lying in bed in a medium shot through the window of his bedroom when the camera cuts to close framing of an analog alarm clock at 7:59 AM, just in time to watch it turn to 7:60 AM. Cue the dissonance of a Minor Third played at a low register and the tone is set for the whole film: everything is off-kilter. From an interaction with a neighbor furiously denying his jogging habit, to the sprinkler system in a building always on that no one acknowledges, to a portly Tracy Morgan look-alike holding a Yorkshire Terrier staring at Dolph reeling with the crusted blood of a head wound, the film is carefully meditated to instill a sense of anxiety intended to make you laugh at how fucked up the familiar is.
The characters themselves are worth just as much as the action and development in Wrong. William Fichtner plays a memorable pseudo-antagonist known as Master Chang, the head of the dog-napping organization. His accent for the character sounds like Werner Herzog impersonating Apu from The Simpsons, completed by facial acid scarring and a dainty little ponytail. I almost lizzed (30 Rock, anyone?) when I saw Steve Little, aka Stevie from Eastbound and Down, go from examining the memories of a dog turd to a Tim and Eric style meltdown culminating in breaking a chair over Dolph’s back (Oh god, let these be the defining cinematic achievements of my generation).
Like existential ennui or a college sophomore beezy after watching a Jeunet film, absurdity is best handled by a Frenchman. Dupieux shows — with cigarette carelessly dangling from his mouth — through Wrong that he’s just as deft at articulating his interpretation of “surreal” within the confines of a film as he is at unleashing it on his audience. Poète maudit Gérard de Nerval was renowned for strutting Paris with his pet lobster Thibault on a blue silk leash and telling everyone to deal with it; Dupieux’s strutting New French Surrealism and inviting you to come play. And to think, you don’t even need to pick up a few tabs of acid from your older brother’s friend in a jam band for the trip.