Eric’s Nightstream Review: Mandibles (2020)

Scary DVDs! Woo!
Train it and we’ll make a fortune! Dominque, the fly from Mandibles (2020)
★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Two French dullards discover a giant housefly in the trunk of a car that they stole, and they realize that this monstrous insect could be their ticket to fame and fortune. Toro! From Quentin Dupieux, the director and twisted imagination behind Rubber (2010), the bonkers Mandibles was the festival closing feature for Nightstream.

Directed by Quentin Dupieux

Jean Gab (David Marsais) and Manu (Grégoire Ludig) check out what’s in the trunk in Mandibles (2020)

There is something compelling about having idiot buddies coming up with a ridiculous scheme for us to see them struggle executing idiot plans. Mandibles is a dark comedy-fantasy that is soaked in French Absurdism. As the closing act of the impressive Nightstream film festival, where it was given the opportunity to put the exclamation mark on what was a remarkable streaming event.

The closing statement turned out to be rather gentle for a horror film festival, as this is about 80% comedy and 20% dark fantasy, but for bizarre genre fare, this was a very entertaining way to wrap things up. If you are creeped out by giant hairy insects, then this very well could be a horror picture, but this is hardly a scary movie. Quentin Dupieux has been hailed for his surreal horror-comedies Rubber (2010), about a sentient automobile tire with psychokinetic powers and a bad attitude; and Deerskin (2019), about a hunter obsessed with a hunting jacket. These are now considered underground cult classics, and Nightstream honored Dupieux with a prime viewing slot.

The movie opens with beach bum Manu (Grégoire Ludig) who gets roused from his soaked sleeping bag by a fixer contact to do a milk-run delivery for some fast cash. Manu doesn’t have a car of his own, so he strolls down the beach road until he finds an old Mercedes coupe that he is able to hotwire and use as the delivery vehicle.

He stops by a gas station where his best friend Jean Gab (David Marsais) works, to see if he wants to join him on this mission. Jean Gab is up for some adventure, and they hit the road, but something in the back of the car humming and thumping. When they pop the trunk, they are stunned that a gigantic house-fly was the source of all that racket. Rather than freaking out in panic (as I certainly would), Jean Gab muses that this fly, whom he names Dominique, could be a gold mine for them if they could domesticate it and have it do tricks. Manu thinks this nutty idea is brilliant, and they abandon their grifter delivery job to embark on a career as carnie wanna-bes.

This triggers a series of misadventures for the buddies, who are completely broke, with a stolen car, trying to figure out how to motivate their new gruesome (but kinda cute) pet. As they bungle their way through this new plan, would-be disastrous events seem to just roll off their backs. These men are survivors by way of blissful stupidity, and they adjust with a shrug and their custom “Toro!” handshake. The car is out of gas? Toro! The trailer blew up? Toro! Sometimes it’s just easier being dumb.

As the duo lurches down the road following yet another setback, Manu is mistaken for being a high school friend of a group of a local young woman, Cecile (India Hair), who invites them to the fancy estate where she lives with her brother and her friends. It is there that the buddies meet somebody who is able to see through their routine. Agnes (Adèle Exarchopoulos) had a traumatic brain injury while skiing, and now is forced to YELL AT THE TOP OF HER LUNGS when communicating anything. And she realizes that these guys are hiding something. Quite literally, they are hiding Dominique, and she senses something is awry. Nobody else at the house senses it, but she’s onto them.

In classic madcap slap-stick fashion, the movie becomes a mind game between a brain-damaged worry-wort busybody and a couple of dudes who are so oblivious that they actually manage to defy logic and get away with it. The constant threat of discovery of the monstrous insect looms large throughout and proves for some fine comic moments.

Mandibles reminds me a lot of Raising Arizona or Bottle Rocket in its delivery. The humor is both broad and very silly, but at the same time it there is a wry intelligence to the absurd plot, even if the protagonists are certifiably stupid. Most importantly, the leads are lovable. There’s nothing mean or despicable about Manu and Jean despite whatever criminal activities that they engage in. Ludig and Marsais have a great chemistry from working together on the comedy history show La Folle Histoire du Palmashow and the associated movie La folle histoire de Max et Léon (2016). Exarchopoulos is so fun and wildly over the top that she manages to steal every scene she is in with her cringe-worthy antics. She reminds me of a Waner Brother cartoon character like Daffy Duck, exasperated that nobody else is wise to these fishy strangers in their midst, screaming “AHA! GOTCHA!” only to be foiled. She’s a fantastic foil to Manu and Jean Gab.

And orchestrating this is Dupieux, who now has to be reckoned as an auteur of the absurd. He has channeled the French New Wave into the current era, and he has a gift for fun storytelling. He is becoming a must-watch writer/director who is producing uniquely compelling stories with visual flair. And whether it’s a rolling tire or a giant fly, he uses his limited special effects work to perfection. I think that both animatronics and digital effects were used to create the fly. The film uses just the right amount Dominique… and yes, we do learn that she’s a carnivore. (Heh!)

There is less political commentary than Rubber, and no fourth wall breaking in Mandibles, so it’s a more straightforward affair this time out. The film drifts a bit due to some side-mission plotlines, and some dangling plot threads get forgotten, so the story could have potentially used a tighter edit. But, overall, the movie is a fun, breezy, and buzzy. The ending has a great punchline to it, and I would certainly sign up for a sequel to find the future adventures of Manu, Jean Gab… and Dominique.

Mandibles is currently on the festival circuit and is not rated. I would suspect it would earn a PG-13, as there is nothing particularly violent or sexual about this movie, though there are enough F-bombs that it might push the censor’s buttons. It is not yet streaming, but any film that gets a chance to show at the Venice film festival and Nightstream will certainly get an international release.

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