Editor’s note: Last year at Berlinale, Rory O’Connor caught up with Quentin Dupieux who was there to premiere Incredible But True, which would go on to be the first of two features of 2022, the latter of which was the Cannes premiere Smoking Causes Coughing. With both films now available stateside, we’re sharing the conversation.

It’s early afternoon in Berlin, crisp and cold, the kind of February day you always seem to get around the Berlinale. The festival cautiously returned in 2022 to a live, in-person event after going online, like so many others, in 2021, and had reopened its doors earlier with Peter Von Kant, the latest from François Ozon, a reimagining of the Fassbinder classic that had itself premiered at the same festival almost exactly a half-century before.

The director we’d come to talk to is not so fond of reimagining. Premiering in the Berlinale Special, Incredible But True is the latest work of comic surrealism by the musician turned filmmaker Quentin Dupieux, an idiosyncratic artist from France who found surprise fame in 1999 when, buoyed by a collaboration with Levis, his electro classic Flat Beat became an unavoidable hit. Over ten features, Dupieux has taken the same sense of fun and immediacy that defined his music into his work behind the camera; as witnessed in the strange thrills of films like Rubber (2010), Deerskin (2019), and Mandibles (2020). They are nothing if not original.

His feature follows a couple in the early throes of middle age who, upon discovering a time travel portal in their basement, become increasingly conscious of their advancing years. There is also a man with a mechanical cock.

The Film Stage: When was your last time here?

Quentin Dupieux: In Berlin, must have been for a gig. I was in a club, I would say, 5 years ago. I used to come here to play, to DJ.

Of course. Which venue was it?

I remember one called Maria, maybe ten years ago. I loved it. You know it?

I don’t think so.

It was like, pretty rough. Dark club. Dirty. It was good.

This film, without sounding too serious, is about decay in some way. Decaying bodies, how we’re all going in this direction, one way or another. Where did this idea come from?

You know, right before this I did a really stupid movie about a giant fly [Deerskin]. So with this one I needed to put a little bit of meaning into it. I mean, I would love to shoot only stupid movies; it’s not a problem for me. But as a viewer, when a filmmaker starts to have their thing, then it’s boring. “Oh, him again. Yeah, stupid, I know.” It becomes less and less exciting.

Even someone amazing like Will Ferrell––he’s been doing stupid comedies for 15 years. It started amazing, then he reached a peak where it was like really crazy and amazing, then for ten years it was less and less exciting. So the starting point for this: I needed first to make something different. I think I needed something more connected to human beings.

It’s also about obsession in some way. You’ve spoken about this before when talking about your film Deerskin, how people can “fall into” obsessions in some way.

You’re not the first to put these two movies together. There is, of course, something about obsession. I think we’re all obsessed in a way. I see teenagers, they are checking, checking, checking. [Holds up phone] Even myself, I do it. I see so many people around me obsessed with different stuff. I think the world we live in works like this.

Or else you quit [Claps hands], you go live in the mountains. No cell phone, no computer, and just dogs. That’s an option, but also it’s a little sad to leave the excitement of society, because even if it’s horrible it’s exciting.

The obsession in this film revolves around aging––Marie with looking younger, Gerard with his impotence. Why did you decide to draw this on such straight gender lines?

It’s not something I decided; it just came up. I think it’s just the easiest cliché, you know––what’s the most ridiculous thing for a man? It’s being a man. “Yeerrr, I wanna be a man, I wanna be hard.” It’s so stupid that it’s automatically a comedy plot. And then, what society expects of women… when I see young girls on Instagram who basically are still kids, trying to be sexy, this makes me feel so bad. When I see this I think “Bah, the world is sick, for real.” I think this thing [Holds up phone] is as amazing as it’s terrible, for human beings. It’s a fact.

I don’t want to change it, I love it, I’m using it. But I think we went too far and it’s too late so we are only going to see more and more young girls trying to be sexy. We’re going to see more stupid dudes being violent, and that’s it. It wasn’t conscious, I just picked up the easiest cliché, to make this thing universal.

To go from the other side of it, the science fiction element is quite compelling. Was there an inspiration behind this particular conceit?

It’s like the Monty Python version of time travel, something that doesn’t make sense. I love Back to the Future, for example, like every person of my generation, because it makes sense––it’s logical. You go back in the past and meet your parents and you want to fix problems. I always wanted to make the silly version of this without falling into the trap of making another bad version of Back to the Future. We’ve seen this so many times. There’s no point going there.

Basically, I could do this with any kind of cliché. Just pick a car chase movie, instead of making like the funny version of it you make the reverse version of it. It’s about finding a new angle on something we already know. I make small movies, so the only thing I can offer to the crowd is a new angle. Because a new angle is cheap; I don’t need to set a building on fire. That’s a different job. My job is to show a different angle on some tiny things.

I mean, that car crash looked pretty good?

Mhm! Mhm! But I don’t want the audience to be frustrated. If you explain in the first 20 minutes that it’s about time travel they’re going to be disappointed because she just goes down a tunnel. [Laughs] But that’s what I like about it.

Is this why you went into the conceit so quickly?

Oui, oui.

I wanted to ask about this brevity in your work. They seem to just get shorter and shorter?

I always end up cutting to the same length. I think the one before was shorter, with the giant fly, but I feel good around this time. It’s not even like I decide. When I cut the movie I’m not looking at the time; it’s not interesting. The way I cut and the way I write, it always ends up being short like this, which is fine to me because this movie talks about time and time is abstract. When you look at it, this movie doesn’t feel short. I don’t even think about it.

It’s the right pace for my movies. Maybe I’m wrong? I start editing and I have no idea what’s going to happen, and at the end I check the clock and “Oh, 73 minutes.” It’s just like that. It’s all about the pacing. Honestly, I think I’ve found my language in a way. I’m just finishing the edit of my 10th movie and it’s the same: 75 minutes, sharp. I was the same with music. I’ve put out a lot of albums, maybe around 300 pieces of music, and I never went over 3:20, 3:25. That was just enough.

Your next is called Smoking Makes You Cough. I read that the characters are called the Tobacco Force?

Oui, oui. It’s super gory. It’s like a giant nightmare, with many stories. There are like three storylines, it’s very dense. Yes, it’s a group of superheroes. It’s set now, or maybe in the ‘80s; we don’t know.

Do you see any other connections between your work as a musician and your work as a filmmaker?

Maybe. I know that I have a good sense of rhythm, like for dialogue, or the way you switch from one scene to another. All this, this editing part with sound and stuff, I know my music brain is active when I do this. Apart from that I don’t think there’s a connection. I make stupid music for dance floors, which is cool. But you can make a cool track like this [Clicks fingers] because you feel it. You can’t really work that fast when you make a movie.

Is there maybe a continuity in terms of humor?

Yeah, it’s a bit the same. My music and my films basically are always saying, “Hey this is not important.” If you think I’m taking myself seriously it means I failed. I honestly think all this music and all these movies are not important. I know as an artist I have a great life, I have the freedom to do this, but I know it’s nothing. These are just movies. In a few years people will maybe watch them on a phone, and swipe, and check 15 minutes of it and get bored. And that’s why I love to do this. I would hate to spend five years on a project. I would deeply hate that.

Incredible But True is now on VOD and Smoking Causes Coughing arrives in theaters and VOD on March 31.

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