It has probably come to your attention that time has gone all squirrelly recently. Every day we wake, 40 years older than yesterday, yet also in a state of suspended animation, all development arrested. An instant can last an eon, and yet in the time it takes for a tap to drip, our page-a-day calendars have somehow riffled whole months away into the wind. It certainly hasn’t escaped Quentin Dupieux’s notice, and somehow, in between the dripping taps and toppling civilizations of this pandemic, he’s made a whole film about it.
Admittedly, at 74 minutes, with the limited cast and locations now typical of corona-restricted shoots, the charmingly eccentric “Incredible but True” at first seems even more of a doodle than 2020’s eccentrically charming “Mandibles” or 2019’s “Deerskin,” which was quite the charmer in its eccentricity. But Dupieux has always created mini-universes in which his deadpan-doofus characters can pinball about obeying the laws of a physics not quite the same as ours, so in many ways, the restrictions don’t seem to have restricted him that much.
“Incredible but True” may wear it lightly, but it has a thematic ambition unusual for this ordinarily willfully unserious writer-director-cinematographer-editor. Before, he built gonzo road movies around giant flies, murderous tires or malevolent suede jackets intent on global domination. But here the gags don’t spring from the incongruity of an impossible, possibly magical object. Instead, they center on an elasticated time-travel concept that works as an allegory for low-level lockdown fever in how its batty comedy orbits a little singularity of sadness: This is a loopy lament for all the little bits of life we had to set aside just for a moment, only to never find again. But don’t worry, it also features a guy with a malfunctioning electronic penis.
Alain (a lovely, rumpled Alain Chabat) and Marie (Léa Drucker, superb at grounding the nuttiness in normalcy) are a heroically average suburban couple. In a slightly confusing time-skipping opening, they’re being shown a new house by weaselly realtor Franck (Stéphane Pezerat), while they are also moving into it, having bought it, while they are also living in it, having moved in.
At first glance, with its white, modernist design and secluded green lawn, the house looks a little like the one in “Parasite.” But what’s in this basement is even stranger. As Franck explains, in one of the movie’s many agonizingly drawn-out, delayed-gratification conversations, there’s a hatch in the ground and what’s in it will change their lives. Skeptical but polite, they follow him down into the duct and instead of emerging in a sewer or something, they come out in the upper story of the house. Not only that, but 12 hours have passed. And not only that, but they are, Franck assures them, actually three days younger than when they went in.
This is a patently ridiculous what-if, but Dupieux uses it so intriguingly, and Chabat and Drucker play it with such droll believability, that you quickly forgive its sky-high contrivance. Especially when there’s all sorts of other business going on, involving Alain’s gratingly alpha-male boss Gege (Benoît Magimel) — he of the robotically enhanced penis — his lingerie-boutique-owner girlfriend Jeanne (Anaïs Demoustier), a client of Alain’s who won’t leave him alone to play Asteroids in peace, and the next-door neighbor’s cat, who looks at him funny. None of these variously amusing strands amounts to much, but then, things not amounting to much is sort of the point.
The cinematography is a little more anonymous than the cool, blanched formalism that Dupieux usually delivers, but the editing picks up the slack. It culminates in a daring third act that plays out mostly in montage, set to Jon Santo’s blippy, electro-baroque score, so the film somewhat mimics the odd lives of acceleration and deceleration that Alain and Marie end up living. It makes even clearer the parallels between this absurdist sci-fi and the stop-start existences we’ve all suffered through of late, as Alain and Marie’s different responses to the magic hatch drive a wedge in their previously contented marriage. Who among us who’s seen a relationship’s hairline fractures become massive gulfs under the strain of a sudden uncontrollable shift in living circumstances, can fail to relate? “Incredible but True” is a fun little trinket that unmistakably comes from Dupieux’s far-out perspective, but if you find yourself chiming more than usual with its quixotic quandaries, who’s to say whether that’s because Dupieux has mellowed, or because the past couple of years have driven us all so nuts that now we’re meeting him halfway.