It is difficult to ascertain to what, exactly, the title of Quentin Dupieux’s latest film refers. Almost every moment of Wrong defies the logic of narrative filmmaking; every scene is, in essence, a prolonged non-sequitor. Not that anyone who had seen his previous film Rubber, about a homicidal telekinetic tire, would have expected anything too straightforward from the French musician-turned-filmmaker (who also scores his films under his nom de musique Mr. Oizo). But whereas everything in Rubber made empirical sense within the film’s admittedly outlandish premise (itself a darkly satirical crack on the intersection of voyeurism and consumerism), the individual images of Wrong operate in an almost purely metaphorical sense to create a poetic vernacular with which Dupieux is able to explore wider, more nebulous themes of self denial.
Wrong‘s protagonist Dolph Springer (played with wonderful aplomb by Jack Plotnick), is, presumably, a travel agent. Or rather, was a travel agent. Despite having been fired three months prior, Dolph still reports for work every day, much to the mounting chagrin of his co-workers. In their office, it is inexplicably always raining. Or maybe it’s just the fire sprinklers. Either way, no one in the office seems to mind, or to think that this is in any way out of the ordinary.
One morning, Dolph wakes up to find that his dog Paul is missing. Dolph’s quest to locate his prodigal pet is the essence of the film’s threadbare plot; where the film excels — and, indeed, where one senses the influence of Luis Bunuel, David Lynch, and such psychologically impressionistic works as Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad — is in its ability to shuttle its protagonist through a series of social interactions whose outcomes do more to illustrate Dolph’s phenomenological perspective and to inform his lifeworld than to expedite the resolution of his practical dilemma.
This doesn’t quite make Dolph’s dog a MacGuffin like the suitcase in Pulp Fiction (which, despite motivating all the action of the film, is ultimately of no consequence to the audience’s interest in or understanding of the story), but something more akin to Bunny, Tara Reid’s character in The Big Lebowski, albeit with one noteworthy difference: though both Dolph and The Dude’s odysseys are more Candy than Candide, the Coen Brothers — taking as much from the hardboiled crime fictions of Raymond Chandler as from Bunuel and the absurdists — were meticulous in setting up and grounding their flights of visual fancy in a rigorously crafted series of cascading events. For Dupieux, plotting is more about accumulation than progression, and it is only through an analogous, connotative reading of the images that we can recognize an authorial thematic cohesion.
Every morning, Dolph wakes up as his alarm clock changes from 7:59 to 7:60, staunchly and resolutely resisting the passage of time. The clock, the routine return to a job he no longer possesses, and the innumerable photographs and paintings of himself and Paul adorning his home all illustrate a futile effort to stave off the onset of change, to manifest an illusory permanence. Why such anxiety in the face of progress? Dolph, clearly a fastidious and fussy-minded fellow, places a phone call to a local pizzeria to question the integrity of their logo, which is a rabbit riding a motorcycle. If the rabbit is meant to represent the speed with which the pizza is delivered, isn’t it overkill to put him on a motorcycle? Furthermore, isn’t the motorcycle’s alacrity an invariable, unbeholden to the personal celeritous qualifications of its driver? Dolph clearly has some difficulty seeing the forest from the trees.
Any other pizzeria employee would have grown frustrated and hung up, but for Emma (Alexis Dziena), who tends toward vapidity, this is the most interesting conversation of her life. Dolph hangs up without ordering a pizza, but Emma sends him one anyway. He throws it into the garbage, from which his gardener Victor (Eric Judor) procures it for his lunch. Inside, Victor finds an astonishingly explicit note in which Emma tenders her phone number and her body to Dolph. Victor calls Emma, pretending to be Dolph, and arranges an illicit rendezvous with Emma. Though she finds it odd that Dolph has suddenly acquired a thick French accent, this does not deter her, and following their tryst she declares that she intends to leave her husband for him.
The real Dolph, meanwhile, sets off to meet the mysterious Master Chang (an inspired William Fichtner), a soft spoken zen-master-type who confides that the company he founded seven years ago has kidnapped Paul. The purpose of this unusual service is to teach pet owners a lesson; “I only realized I loved my face after it had been burned with acid,” Chang illustrates, alluding to — but not explaining — the scars which cover half of his face. Nevermind that Dolph is a doting owner to Paul, whom he considers his best friend — Chang selects his involuntary clients at random, and promptly returns their pets unharmed. Except that the van which was carrying Paul randomly caught fire, killing the kidnapper. Paul, luckily, escaped the van, but is now missing for real.
Chang hires a detective (Steve Little) to find Paul and gives Dolph a copy of his book My Life, My Dog, My Strength, which he claims will teach Dolph how to telepathically communicate with Paul. Dolph, however, is unable to concentrate on the book now that Emma — who finds it only a little strange that Dolph looks nothing like the man with whom she had sex the night prior — has, as promised, left her husband and moved in with him. Detective Ronnie, meanwhile, is successfully able to extract the memories from the feces Paul expelled on the front lawn just before he was kidnapped, but the resultant video does nothing more than confirm Chang’s story. Feel free to reread that last sentence, and then decide whether or not this is your kind of movie.
I could go on, describing what literally happens in each scene of the film, but that is to miss the point. The beauty of Wrong lies in its incongruity. Every character is so entrenched in self-delusion and denial that their entire lives exist in direct contradiction to logic. In one of Wrong‘s earliest scenes, Dolph’s neighbor Mike (Regan Burns) vehemently denies that he has ever jogged — insists that he categorically abhors running in general — despite the fact that Dolph has seen him out jogging almost every morning. Mike then announces that he’s leaving for an indeterminate amount of time to an indeterminate location. He has no plans and no expectations, he simply needs a change.
Much later in the film, Mike calls Dolph from what he calls “the end of the world” — a barren expanse of caked earth under an oppressive white sky — to apologize for lying about jogging and wonder aloud why he feels compelled to deny this part of his personality, but he quickly reverts to deriding the act and insisting he does not take part in it. In the image of Mike’s car speeding across the infinite, we recognize the human mind; with no points of reference along the horizon, we acknowledge the contextual imperative of truth and the inherent limitations of our own perceptive faculties.
By leaving his home — by abandoning all of the external signifiers of his existence in order to, in essence, escape the truth — and retaining only a firmly held conviction that stands in blatant disregard of all logic and empirical fact, Mike has become untethered from any concept or semblance of reality, drifting through an empty life just as his car drifts through an empty landscape. The human mind is frighteningly capable of deluding itself, especially when one refuses to rectify one’s interior and exterior selves, as pretty much everyone in Wrong does.
Master Chang speaks on multiple occasions about the verity of choice and the individual’s ability to act either in accordance to or in spite of logic, which would seem to indict Mike. But there’s also the matter of Mike’s admission that he has a “block”, his awareness of his disconnect with reality. In this regard, the image of Mike’s car evokes not only the absence of context but also the presence of possibility; with every change comes the opportunity to redefine one’s self. Is his denial endemic to his context, or does it beget his context? Or are meaning and existence mutually endemic, neither able to exist autonomously?
Wrong is more interested in these questions than their answers, which may frustrate some viewers, but to offer any sense of objectivity or imply any sort of universality would be to contradict itself. Dupieux is too smart to offer easy answers in a movie about the malleability of truth; instead he trusts the audience to innately understand his images in abstract, even if the precise meaning — which grows ever more amorphous the closer we get to it — perpetually eludes us. Not that any of this particularly explains the bit about the dog, but perhaps that’s the real difference between a MacGuffin and a metaphor, the difference between prose and poetry: the briefcase in Pulp Fiction could be holding anything, whereas the dog in Wrong could be anything.