Writer and director Quentin Dupieux continues to establish himself as a premise generator. His films have these intriguing hooks that seem to offer fun, intrigue, or perhaps, something deeper. However, each time, he delivers on the core idea and then little past this. His last film, Deerskin (2019), delivered on a killer premise (a man has a jacket he thinks is so cool that he goes on a murderous quest to be the only jacket wearer in the world) and that was about it. With Incredible But True, these criticisms return. Both this and Deerskin are sub eighty minute films with appealing core conceits but little else to offer. Both have their charms and, to an extent, endearingly dry senses of humour. The main divergence is that Incredible But True does even less with its core premise and pads out its brief runtime with an irritating B-plot.
The opening of Incredible But True is excellent. We are introduced to a couple as they are getting a tour of a house by a real estate agent. The agent is wittily written and sharply performed, and gets to deliver the most entertaining part of the film: explaining the time duct. You see, this house is not just a nice (and well lit) set with a pleasing colour palette, it hides a secret. In a Being John Malkovich (1999) style reveal there is a hidden tunnel with magical properties. This tunnel doesn’t allow you to be John Malkovich, it instead transports you from the bottom of the house from the top. It sounds uninteresting but this is our first brilliant visual gag: the couple enter the tunnel through a pipe in their basement and climb down it. Shortly after, they reach the end and find themselves climbing out of a hole far higher up in the house. It is a spatial impossibility, but, this isn’t the secret. You see, it was only a short climb for them but twelve hours have passed. The magic tunnel is a time duct that sends you twelve hours in the future, and that seemingly teleports you to higher up in the house. But, it does something else: it also makes you three days younger.
A tunnel that takes twelve hours and gives you back three years is a hell of a premise, the fun spatial impossibility adds to the charming silliness. Our real estate agent openly admits it makes no sense. This is not about explanations, this is about explorations. That’s the premise, it’s good because it is nonsense. A compelling nonsense with a lot of promise. From this point onwards, the wife of the couple, Léa Drucker, gets obsessed with the tunnel. There is perhaps something lightly regressive about passing on this obsession to the female lead, and having the male stay out of it. One could argue that it bizarrely genders the desire for youth; though, the desire for youth seems to be based around image of self and the film invokes imagery relating to the standards pushed onto women that are (for the most part) not put onto men. It is not that the female lead is weaker or more susceptible, it is more a reflection of patriarchal pressure and what this manifests in. This storyline follows along satisfyingly enough, it goes exactly where you would expect (vis-à-vis obsession and loss of self) but doesn’t ever get quite as interesting as you’d want. To refer back to Being John Malkovich, that film is so brilliant because it takes its silly but simple core idea and then pushes it as far as it can go. It feels like an imaginative exploration and delights due to this.
Incredible But True never really gets imaginative. The potential of the time duct is much larger than what the film is interested in covering, or is able to. Though, this is mostly because so much of the film is spent on a bizarre B-plot. This secondary narrative takes over the film and is deeply annoying. It revolves around the boss of the husband, and how he has had an electronic penis installed (replacing his original penis) in Japan. There’s some cringey ‘Japan is weird’ shorthand and the whole arc is just a mess. The character is annoying and though there is a thematic through line of vanity and self obsession, and this makes the gendered commentary in the overall film more substantial in terms of its critique of patriarchy (an entrenched obsession with one’s penis often being a forced masculine trait; a want to stay forever youthful often being a forced feminine one). That may be the case, but it doesn’t mean this side story isn’t deeply unappealing. It distracts from the quirky and focused core and has an off-putting crudeness to it that the film should be better than. At the start, the film works due to its dry humour and imagination. Eventually, the film has none of this to offer.
The central story of the time duct does not go far enough, but it is a fun narrative. It seems Dupieux can only glean a short out of this material. So, in order to drag it out to just about feature length, we have this other storyline. Fundamentally, this other plot is bad and stops the interesting core premise from developing. Once again, Dupieux has delivered a tantalising idea and a lot of the execution around this is at least entertaining. But, the film as a whole is a real disappointment.