By Gary M. Kramer.
Keep an Eye Out juggles so many different styles of farcical humor and manipulates the police genre that its few lapses can be forgiven.”
French writer/director Quentin Dupieux makes idiosyncratic films that either charm or annoy viewers. Folks who admire the cheekiness of his 2010 breakout hit Rubber, about a killer tire, may have been less enchanted by his subsequent feature, Wrong, a disarming comedy-mystery. And vice versa. Dupieux’s most recent films – Deerskin, about a man (Jean Dujardin in a wholly committed performance) with a fetish for a particular jacket, and Mandibles, which involves a giant fly as well as a set of teeth – were uneven comedies that tickled fans who appreciate the filmmaker’s trademark brand of calculated whimsy.
Dupieux’s 2018 film, Keep an Eye Out, is now getting its American release in theaters and virtual cinemas nationwide on March 5. It is sure to delight the filmmaker’s loyal followers but not likely to win him any new devotees.
The film opens with a man (Laurent Nicolas) standing on a bale of hay, wearing only a pink speedo conducting a tuxedo-clad orchestra in the countryside. The police soon arrive and give chase, and then the real story begins. Commissioner Buron (Benoît Poelvoorde) is interrogating Louis Fugain (Grégoire Ludig), who found a dead body outside his apartment building. Although he claims to have only previously seen corpses in novels, he knew this man was dead because of the pool of blood around it. Fugain is the main suspect in the crime because he behaved improperly. Buron is taking his statement and questioning his actions.
It may sound like a typical police investigation, but nothing Dupieux does is typical. The characters play verbal ping pong. When Franchet (Jacky Lambert) says to the Chief (Philippe Duquesne), “I’m off to dinner… Dinner. Interested?” the Chief responds, “Interested you eat dinner, yes.” It is like something out of Airplane! Other characters punctuate their speech with the word “actually,” and one could make a drinking game out of how often that word is spoken in the film.
Early on in the interrogation, Buron goes off to meet his son (Orelsan) for dinner – their conversation, about suicide and television is also wild—and he asks his colleague, Philippe (Marc Fraize), to “keep an eye on” Fugain while he is out. This is the film’s big joke: Philippe only has one eye; his left socket is obscured by a fuzzy distortion. As Fugain and Philippe chat, an accident happens involving the cop, an open file cabinet, and a metal protractor (ouch!). Philippe does not just lose his other eye, he dies. Fugain is not involved, but he conceals the body in a closet, which potentially incriminates him.
That is almost a spoiler to reveal, but it sets up the film’s suspense narrative. Fugain may be innocent of the crime for which he is already a suspect, but he makes a(nother) bad decision regarding Philippe. Will he be caught and convicted of either crime? Perhaps.
Keep an Eye Out is a comedy, so the answer is not straightforward. Dupieux plays up the silly bits, from a scene of Buron enjoying a cigarette and smoke coming out of a hole in his chest, to a marvelous sight gag involving an oyster. There is also an exchange Buron has with a coworker regarding a photo of a toe that the commissioner thinks looks like a penis.
The film gets even stranger (but remains compelling) as it starts to fold in on itself. Fugain recounts how he was seen leaving his apartment seven times, and although he is describing the past, he is haunted by the present. Dead Philippe keeps showing up in his narrative – on the TV in his apartment, for example. Philippe’s wife Fiona (Anaïs Demoustier), also makes several appearances in his memory, but Fugain’s tipping her off that something happens to Philippe in the future has her justifiably concerned. Time, apparently, does not exist; just watch the clocks (both digital and analog) that can’t stop moving.
Dupieux’s absurdist world is drolly amusing except when the few moments that it isn’t. There are stories – Buron and Fugain describe the hungriest they have been – that don’t quite land. And a reveal late in Keep an Eye Out is reminiscent of another, famous film. To even mention the title would give away the gag, which only half-works.
It is frustrating that Dupieux can sustain this deadpan comedy only up to a point because he gives such terrific comic material to his actors. Poelvoorde is hilarious as his passive-aggressive approach towards Fugain gets on the suspect’s nerves and under his skin. In contrast, Ludig gives a very controlled performance. When Buron hands the extremely hungry Fugain a half-eaten candy bar, Ludig’s expression of distaste and despair is priceless. His scene with the oyster is even better.
Keep an Eye Out juggles so many different styles of farcical humor and manipulates the police genre that its few lapses can be forgiven. For viewers who are on Dupieux’s wavelength, this film is mostly sublime.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.