“It’s Not Precisely an Image, It’s More Like a Sensation”: Quentin Dupieux on Incredible But True
One of the funniest movies of 2022 is Quentin Dupieux’s Incredible But True. On November 8, it’s available on streaming and Blu-ray from Arrow, but as far as I know, it has no American distributor since its world premiere in Berlin last February. One has to wonder whether Dupieux is now only considered to be a French local delicacy, even after the perverse joys and glorious idiocies of Mandibles and Deerskin (starring Academy Award winner Jean Dujardin and Adèle Haenel).
Or maybe we’ve all been too cagey in describing Incredible But True and its Philip K. Slapstick premise. So here you go: a man (Alain Chabat) and his wife (Léa Drucker) discover a time travel portal in their new house; shenanigans ensue, as they have very different outlooks on how to use it. Also, Pacifiction star Benoît Magimel plays a yutz of a boss, in a fright mustache.
I’ll be the first to admit that my mileage has varied on Dupieux’s films, but when his surrealist antics are firing on all pistons, it’s a liberating laughter—and even that hit-or-miss quality I’ve so far found endearing, as if he’s a try-anything two-reeler comic who happens to be making features. I interviewed Dupieux at the Berlin International Film Festival, and tried to suss out what makes his comedy cuckoo clocks tick, as he seemed both jazzed and charmingly befuddled by his own process.
Filmmaker: My first question is, how did you find a house with the capability of time travel?
Dupieux: We basically looked for it. It was quite something to project this idea onto a house, because many of the houses we saw didn’t work. We saw many houses—amazing ones, good-looking ones, some regular. It was always too weird to think about my story. Suddenly we found this one, which—for some abstract reason—worked. Just by looking at the house, we knew it was the one.
Filmmaker: What was the seed of the idea?
Dupieux: I think I started without the time machine in a way. I started just by creating two characters, the couple. I don’t know why they led me to this amazing story. But I had no plan. Usually when I start writing a movie, I have some visual ideas that are hard to describe. Basically, by writing I’m trying to reach these visual ideas. It’s pretty abstract in my head. I didn’t start it with a pitch. “Okay, I’m going to make a movie about a house.” I started creating the characters and, I don’t know why, these characters led me to this basement.
Filmmaker: I like that the same phenomenon has different effects on people. One person might see the potential of living out a dream, another might just get bored. Is that part of what led you to the idea?
Dupieux: No, that’s more like a comedy trick! If you shoot the same story with two characters obsessed with being younger, suddenly it’s not a comedy anymore. It’s a movie about a time machine. Of course, what makes me write all crazy scenes—the only purpose—is making a good comedy. I know it contains other subjects and deeper meanings, but my goal is to make you spend one hour and fifteen minutes having fun with some characters. I’m a comedy guy!
Filmmaker: The way your ideas build reminds me a little bit of improv comedy. Do you know the idea of “yes, and”?
Dupieux: [chuckles] Oui, oui. Yes.
Filmmaker: Do you like that kind of comedy?
Dupieux: Yeah, it’s exactly how I work. It’s like, I go somewhere, but I don’t know what’s next. And I’m excited to write to discover what’s next. So it’s the same concept, you know. Of course when it’s a script, then I work again—I work on the structure, I work on the characters. I do the regular scriptwriter thing. But how I build the first draft is exactly like that: it’s like, “Oh, what’s next!” And I’m excited to go back on the computer and find out. Basically, I don’t have to think about it. It’s like seeing the movie growing by itself, which is very exciting. Honestly when I write, I feel like I’m reading a book.
Filmmaker: I think that’s what Charles Dickens used to say. He saw the characters talking and he wrote it all down. What are some comedy inspirations for you, or particular comparisons for this movie?
Dupieux: The most obvious would be Groundhog Day. That’s a genre I used to love in the ’80s, ’90s.
Filmmaker: Like magic switcheroo movies?
Dupieux: Yeah, these comedies with magic, crazy ideas. This is something I enjoyed. It’s maybe what I always wanted to do, even if this is different and not the same concept obviously. But I’m not only into one thing. I have a wide selection in my head. I love so many French films from the ’80s, ’90s. I love the Coen Brothers. Sometimes I even watch terrible movies, and I always find something in it, even in a bad movie. I think I’m inspired by everything. Not only good things!
Filmmaker: I’m thinking of 18 Again! now.
Dupieux: Oh, yeah, yeah! Exactly. But this is my obscure French version.
Filmmaker: How about the actors—what made Alain Chabat right for this particular character?
Dupieux: Many reasons. I don’t know if you know—maybe you don’t, because you’re not French. But for us, Alain is a masterpiece. Some amazing actors from this era just got fat, got lazy, they made terrible choices. We used to love them but now they are not exciting anymore. But Alain, he’s not that old, he’s around 60, and I grew up watching his stuff on TV. It was mind-blowing because he was so modern and so new for French TV. [Their group] was called Les Nuls. There were four of them. What these guys were doing on TV back in the day brought a new kind of comedy to France. So I grew up with him, and then he became this filmmaker and did some amazing films. And he is the sweetest. He is pretty rare [on screen] these days. He’s not shooting much. For example, this year, there’s no other movie with him. Incredible But True is the only one.
Filmmaker: This is “the Alain Chabat movie” for this year.
Dupieux: Yes! We already made a movie together ten years ago, so he is a good friend. He is in my head very precisely, which means it’s pretty easy to think of him and write dialogue for him and know it will sound amazing. When he got the script, he said, “Look, it’s just for me, every word is perfect for me.” So this makes the process very enjoyable.
Filmmaker: He has a great reactive face, so he’s a great person to put into situations. You just watch his face!
Dupieux: Yeah! He is a good listener. We love him deeply in France. I mean, some people don’t, but he is something. He has his own style. He’s not just a good actor—he has more than that. He is a persona.
Filmmaker: Same question for Léa Drucker: what lead you to cast her?
Dupieux: It’s the same. I wrote the part for her, but I didn’t know her. We met a few times, but we’re not close friends. She is just amazing. She’s so real, she’s so true. The story is quite twisted, but I wanted it to be real. It’s a comedy, but I want you to trust it. It’s not just a joke—what you see on screen has to look real, so I needed someone really strong with reality. That’s what she gave. She’s not faking the emotions. Even if it’s a comedy, her presence and the way she goes through all of it makes the story look amazingly real.
Filmmaker: This movie has another surprise that’s really a wonderful accomplishment: I think it’s a ten-minute montage?
Dupieux: Almost 15.
Filmmaker: How and why did you do that? It’s excellent.
Dupieux: I did it because what comes before is something I already know how to do: dialogues, characters, comedy situations and stuff. I’m used to it, and I knew this movie needed a kick. Someone asked me yesterday, “So, was that improvised during the editing?” And I was like, “No, it was in the script!” The script said: at this point, no more dialogue, only short scenes with music. Then I listed like 200 scenes, because it’s a movie about time, so at some point you need to see time [passing]. Otherwise it’s just a situation comedy, which is cool too, but I wanted this movie to take off at some point. The music is very important emotionally to make people feel something important is happening, and in this case, time is running. You know the characters now, you don’t need to hear them talking. Now just see what’s happening in their life.
Filmmaker: It’s clever—the kind of innovation you might come up with if you ran out of money!
Dupieux: I know, it’s dangerous, and another person asked me yesterday, “Is it because the scenes were not so good and so you decided to put some music?” No, dude! It was done like this. Actually, if you look closely, you will see that the actors act differently.
Filmmaker: Yes, it’s a little like a silent film.
Dupieux: Exactly. Everything is pushed a little bit. For example, when you see Gérard [the Benoît Magimel character] coming back from Japan and you see him exiting the plane, he is overacting the pain [he has]. It’s like a silent movie—this was the idea. I’m very happy about it, because it’s something I never did before. It’s a surprise. I think if you enjoy what’s before, you will enjoy this part. It’s different, but you can still see the characters evolving.
Filmmaker: Do you think of the movie as a fable at all?
Dupieux: I never thought about it, but since everyone is saying this word, I’m like, yeah! Sure!
Filmmaker: Why not! I’m curious about what you said about how you come up with ideas. That it’s abstract, but you have a visual idea. What do you mean?
Dupieux: Well, it’s always different for each movie, and… I don’t know, it’s more like a vibe. It’s like music actually. That’s why it’s hard to describe. For example, when I had the idea for the movie Rubber, the only thing in my head was I wanted to see a tire rolling slowly, following someone. This was the start. I was like, “Oh, this is great, I would love to do my version of Jaws with a tire.” And that’s it! That time, it was easy. But for the latest one, it was more like a vibe, a music in my head, a mood in a way. It’s not precisely an image, it’s more like a sensation.
Filmmaker: What’s the earliest memory you have, personally?
Dupieux: Interesting. [chuckles] I have a mix of many imprecise memories as a child—being five years old, being three, being six. There’s one thing in my head, one precise memory, and I don’t even know when: I know I had a bird for 24 hours in a cage. A friend of mine captured a bird in a park, and—I don’t know why—this friend and his mom offered the bird to us in a cage. It was weird. So I started feeding the bird, giving it some bread, some milk, whatever. And the bird died the next day! When I think about it, I’m like, “Why did they give us a bird with a cage, and why did we keep it?” And the bird died! It’s super-weird. It was very sad. I remember I had an old tape recorder, and I was recording my feelings on the tape. I was explaining how I was sad about the bird and stuff. This is one of the most precise souvenirs I have in my head as a child.
Filmmaker: Oh man! And these sorts of events always feel huge when you’re a kid.
Dupieux: Huge! It was like, you know, very sad. [chuckles]
Filmmaker: Maybe some day it’ll turn into a comedy.
Dupieux: Oui, peut-être!