Quentin Dupieux’s offbeat comedies put people into bonkers situations and watch them do their best. And their best — God bless us — is often pretty hopeless. In “Mandibles,” a couple of guys find a dog-size fly and try to hide it in their car trunk. In “Deerskin,” a man (the Oscar winner Jean Dujardin) gets fixated on soft leather jackets and goes to murderous lengths to acquire one.
The genius of these what-on-earth scenarios is that the actors play it all straight. That makes for laughs, but there’s also a general circuit-frying glee at Dupieux’s unpredictable left turns. (Also fun: He casts French stars like Adèle Exarchopoulos and Benoît Magimel, happily going rogue.)
The director’s latest, “Smoking Causes Coughing” (in theaters), has a plot best described as “superheroes on vacation.” This Power Rangers-style squad usually battles (very lo-fi) monsters, but they’re taking some time to regroup. (Their name? The Tobacco Force.)
On a recent video call, Dupieux talked about clips from five movies that inspired him — and crack him up. Below are his thoughts, condensed and edited.
‘The Phantom of Liberty’ (1974)
Director: Luis Buñuel
It’s just amazing that a brain can come up with this idea. It’s so smart and silly at the same time. The toilets around the table is already something, but then the final gag is that he locks himself in another room to eat! When you’re a filmmaker, this movie is the dream: You start a story, you finish it quickly, you open the door and there’s a new story. Sometimes movies tend to be too scripted, and I love that in this movie you flip the rules and just tell the story exactly how you want.
When I was making my first short films, my friend gave me a VHS tape of this movie, and it was a shock because it’s exactly what I was trying to do. But I don’t like the word “surreal” [for my films]. When these guys were making these types of movies, and when Salvador Dalí was making his art, surrealism meant something strong. It was a concept. Today, I have a feeling the word has lost its magic meaning. At the same time, I have no other word! But why do we need a label?
‘Top Secret!’ (1984)
Directors: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker
Oh my God, I don’t need to click to watch because I’ve watched this scene so many times. This is just the ultimate gag. I saw this in a movie theater when I was a teenager — I liked the poster, the cow with the boots — and I was amazed. So many creative visual ideas, just to make you laugh. These guys were geniuses.
Sometimes you have an idea like this and you realize it’s a nightmare to shoot. Like, come on — we’re not going to build a rolling train station. And they did it! When they were doing “Airplane!,” “Top Secret!” and “Police Squad!” they were at their best. Everything is played straight, like it’s a serious movie. Val Kilmer is perfect for the part because he’s not supposed to be funny. It cracks me up every time.
I just finished my new movie, which is actually about Salvador Dalí. And the reverse scene [in the bookstore in “Top Secret!”] was in my mind. So we shot a few scenes reversed. Which is hilarious to shoot — it’s so much fun to do. And I know it came from “Top Secret!” because I’ve been obsessed for many years: Why would they do that? Why is it so good? Why?!
Director: Blake Edwards
I have a passion for Blake Edwards, for this era especially. He has a very specific comedic timing. Nobody ever did the same pace of humor. And that’s in this scene: the old woman trying to bring a tray. If I do it or if someone else does it, it will not be half as funny.
It’s well-crafted. It’s not something they shot just like that. For me the most important thing when I focus on a scene is the way the dialogue sounds, the music of the words. That’s how I build my comedy timing. When a scene works well between actors, I don’t chop it to make it faster or whatever. I keep the human pace. When it sounds like dialogue, like it’s written, then it’s not good enough. Even if they’re saying stupid stuff, it has to sound like it’s real.
‘Raising Arizona’ (1987)
Director: Joel Coen
I’ve been in love with this movie. This one is more for the brilliant filmmaking: the way it’s shot, the way it’s cut, the way they use the music, the way they use the crane, the Steadicam. Every technique! Hand-held cameras, wide angles. The Coen brothers at this period had crazy filmmaking. I saw this on TV when I was a kid and it killed me.
For example, when Nicolas Cage exits the store and hears the cop, the camera does something. I think it’s someone running in with the camera, hand-held. And it’s amazing, the feeling you get, just by the fact that it’s shaky. I tried to do this many times without success, because it’s not my thing. I love “Fargo,” too. A masterpiece. It’s a nightmare when you look at the main character’s point of view. And for some reason, that’s enjoyable to watch!
‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ (1975)
Directors: Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones
My mind exploded. What the hell — is it possible to film this? Probably my taste for gory scenes and blood — stupid blood — comes from Monty Python. They became popular in France through the movies. I have to say [the French TV show] “Les Nuls” was the first bible for us as kids. We realized later that they were highly influenced by Monty Python, the Zucker brothers and stuff like that. But we didn’t know and it was amazing to discover this crazy new comedy. They were basically translating these English-speaking codes to a French audience. They did a five-hour parody program called “TVN 595” — crazy TV! It was freedom. You could tell they had no rules.