Quentin Dupieux’s Reality follows several Los Angelinos as they gradually grow aware of their respective connections to one another, tonally suggesting a collaboration between Robert Altman and Miranda July on an adaptation of The Far Side. The film’s quasi-hero is Jason Tantra (Alain Chabat), a cameraman for an asinine talk show who’s on the verge of landing a deal to direct a personal movie script for producer Bob Marshall (Jonathan Lambert), provided that the former, in a possible homage to Blow Out, can satisfy the latter with a perfect “Oscar-winning” groan to accompany the film’s prospective horror set pieces. Seemingly unrelated to this negotiation is a little girl who’s actually named Reality (Kyla Kenedy), in a hint of the existential shenanigans to come. Reality follows her father as he kills and butchers a large hog who swallowed a blue video tape; fishing that tape out of a trashcan chock-full of the hog’s guts, she becomes preoccupied with finding a VCR with which to watch it. Occasionally mixed up in Jason, Bob, and Reality’s adventures are Dennis (Jon Heder), the host of said asinine talk show, Alice (Élodie Bouchez), a therapist married to Jason, and Henri (Eric Wareheim), an official at Reality’s school whom Alice is treating.
The specifics of the stories barely matter. Dupieux derives suspense, or, more accurately, semi-engaged curiosity, from his portentous hinting around as to how the stories structurally connect; he’s more concerned with the labyrinth than with the mice who wander it. Early on, for instance, it’s revealed that Reality’s story is actually a movie that’s being filmed by an amusingly pretentious director (John Glover). Yet, Reality still freely interacts with Henri, who, for his involvement with Alice, should exist in the film’s non-movie realm, which is initially understood to include the primary plot with Jason and Bob. One can quickly see where this is all more or less headed. The film resembles a figurative giant snake that’s eating its own tale, and all notions of “reality,” whatever that is, are entirely obliterated, leaving only the now.
Like Dupieux’s other films, Reality straddles a fine line between poignant and tedious slightness. Dupieux has made startling strides in short time as a director since his stultifying Rubber, especially with Wrong, which broke free of his fealty to obvious reference points (Altman and July’s films, as well as the work of Luis Buñuel, David Lynch, Roy Andersson, and Charlie Kaufman, among many others) to mine its own terrain of contemporary city-denizen loneliness. In Wrong, emotional life blooms within the fancily surreal conceit, and a uniquely presentational visual style emerges to pointedly contrast with the free associations of the plot. By contrast, Reality is overly preoccupied with its impressive hall-of-mirrors structure, which loses a bit of its luster by the 30th time a story is shown to exist as fiction within another fictional story.
Still, Dupieux’s studied sense of inconsequence grows haunting. The filmmaker has a talent for rendering otherworldly concepts banal in a manner that reflects the stymied desires of his characters, who assume someone else’s reality is superior to their own. A dream scene in which Jason envisions his groan winning an award is memorably visualized as him sitting among a crowd of faceless mannequins in a jokey image that has the oddly moving and ironic effect of reducing his human specificity despite him being the only real person in the shot. The scenes with Reality are similarly resonant for Kenedy’s unaffected performance, which embodies the vulnerability and longing that are inherent in the film’s elegant images of people watching others, despite their probable separations from one another by differing planes of consciousness. Reality sneaks up on you, its slightness partially an illusion. Like reality.