In Keep An Eye Out, absurdist director Quentin Dupieux tackles the whodunnit genre, crafting a story that you’ll either find fascinating or frustrating, depending on your cinematic knowledge.
How does a film grab and hold our attention? What is it exactly that determines our emotional response to a film, and whether or not we’ll enjoy it? What makes us want to keep our eyes glued to the screen, or sit on the edge of our seats, or be so deeply immersed in a film’s setting and atmosphere that we completely forget about the world around us? If you’ve ever studied film, you’ll probably know that the answer to most of these questions can be found in a single word: form – the way all the elements of a film come together to create a specific effect. As many film theorists often point out, the human mind excels at finding patterns in stories: we’ve seen enough films and become acquainted with enough genre conventions to know exactly which clues should generate suspense, surprise, shock, and all those emotions that a film is capable of making us feel. In film as in real life, our minds have been trained to recognise these patterns, and to anticipate future events based on the elements we’ve been given: our enjoyment of a film ultimately depends on whether or not it will satisfy our expectations.
But our ability to make predictions on a film’s course of events doesn’t just depend on our tendency to make educated guesses, but also on a director’s willingness to experiment. Many are the filmmakers that purposely defy genre conventions and make it a point of not satisfying our expectations, and their films are often highly regarded by academics and critics, as they bring something that is truly new and unique to the medium. At the same time, watching these kinds of movies can be an extremely alienating viewing experience for the general public, making these works groundbreaking for a select few, and incredibly frustrating for most. Quentin Dupieux’s (Rubber, Réalité) latest comedy drama Keep An Eye Out (Au Poste!) is one of those films.
If you’re acquainted with Dupieux’s work, you’ll know that he excels at crafting very specific types of films that don’t just defy audience expectations, but also the laws of time and space and the very definition of a linear narrative, creating a fascinating world that is ruled by a very specific kind of nonsense. Dupieux’s previous work includes a story told entirely from the perspective of a homicidal car tire (Rubber), the tale of a wanna-be director trying to generate an Oscar-worthy groan of pain (Réalité), and a film about two friends trying to domesticate a giant fly (Mandibles). In Keep An Eye Out, the the French absurdist tackles the whodunnit genre, telling a seemingly more linear story that soon turns into something else entirely when the past and the future, the real and the imaginary begin to blend together, bringing you a film that you’ll either find utterly compelling or not interesting at all.
Keep An Eye Out, the first of Dupieux’s films to have been shot in his native France, opens with the long shot of a serious-looking, half-naked man wearing red speedos, and conducting an orchestra in the open air, in the middle of a field. As the music gains momentum, the original title of the film (Au Poste!, which literally means To The Police Station!) appears, taking over most of the screen, the “O” circling the conductor’s head as if to emphasize the solemnity of the moment. Yet, despite this striking, grandiose opening sequence, most of the film takes place inside a yellow-tinged, stuffy police station somewhat reminiscent of the 1970s, where two very ordinary men are sitting at a desk.
One of these men, “Le Commissaire” Buran (Benoît Poelvoorde, of Man Bites Dog), is a pedantic cop with a short attention span, and the habit of always correcting everyone on the most meaningless details. The other, Louis Fugain (Grégoire Ludig, of Dupieux’s Mandibles), is an average Joe on an empty stomach who is being held as the only suspect of an investigation because he happened to discover a dead body outside his apartment building. To tell the truth, Fugain doesn’t really have a whole lot to reveal, as his involvement in the murder consists of him having “seen the corpse of a man on the asphalt, checked his wallet for information on his identity, and called 911”. But Buran is not in a hurry, and what should have been a simple deposition soon turns into a much longer process that takes up most of the film’s runtime, as Fugain is asked to explain why he happened to leave his house seven times in one night before discovering the body.
In between all that, Fugain also comes across a series of bizarre characters, such as a rookie cop with what I can only describe as a… blurry eye? Let’s just say that Philippe (Marc Fraize, of Redoubtable) sports a highly unusual look that immediately comes across as unnatural not only to the viewer, but to Fugain himself, who is soon unable to prevent himself from asking about it. As Buran leaves to run an errand and asks Philippe to (wait for it) keep an eye on Fugain, hilarity ensues, and our unfortunate protagonist soon finds himself having to take care of another unforeseen turn of events.
In between odd-looking characters, strategically placed set squares, clever puns on words, and bizarre explanations and developments, Fugain begins to retrace his steps and recount his movements from earlier that night, but something doesn’t seem quite right. His present experiences begin to tamper with his memories, and past, present and future start blending together. Soon, it begins hard to discern the real from the imaginary, and any attempts to draw logical conclusions or even vague connections between these events is futile: there’s only one choice left, for the viewer. Forget everything you know about films, stop looking for meaning, and simply go with it.
Even if it doesn’t quite reach the hights of the director’s most notorious (and accessible) films, such as Rubber and Réalité, Keep An Eye Out is still extremely clever and innovative, and drenched with Dupieux’s signature humour. Though the film is certainly not for everyone, there’s a lot to admire about a filmmaker who constantly perfects and redefines his own style, and whose craft is, in no small feat, determined by his ability to defy all genre conventions, and experiment with the craft. It’s a very specific audience that Dupieux addresses in his latest film — so specific, in fact, to make one question the very definition of cinematic — and, depending on whether or not you’re it, you’ll either find Keep An Eye Out a bore or a delight. Either way, this absurd, clever whodunnit is bound to give you a thoroughly unique experience, and that, alone, should make you want to watch it.
Keep an Eye Out opens in real and virtual U.S. cinemas on March 5th, 2021: click here to find out more.