Yannick 2023 Movie Review
“You’re full of hate and frustrations. you should take a break,” director Quentin Dupieux once tweeted at me, immediately following my review of his 2014 film “Reality.” In another world, someone might have advised him against picking a fight with a film critic. You know, never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel, and all that. But I didn’t mind. I’d said some harsh things about his movie. Seems only fair that he could retort. (In my experience, film critics are some of the thinnest-skinned people around. But it’s my firm belief: If you dish it, you should be prepared to take it as well.)
In Dupieux’s latest, “Yannick,” the title character is a critic (an amateur one, at least, like every human being who goes to the theater). Like Dupieux, Yannick does the unthinkable, expressing his displeasure. In a way. That. Is. Not. Done. He opens his mouth during the show. And it’s hilarious — by challenging this incredibly specific (but seldom questioned) cultural taboo, Dupieux has concocted both a ripe comedic premise and a chance to interrogate what audiences expect from art: Diversion? Entertainment? Uplift? Provocation? “Yannick” gets us noodling on these questions, while also fulfilling Dupieux’s own idea of what a movie should be, all without overstaying its welcome.
I’d venture to say it’s Dupieux’s best film, though I haven’t seen them all. (“Incredible but True” is also pretty great, as is “Mandibles.”) So let’s say top three, to be safe. The man is crazy prolific, in any case. A month after “Yannick” premiered at Locarno, Salvador Dalí satire “DAAAAAALI!” will screen in Venice. Last year, Dupieux debuted two projects at Berlin and Cannes. He is also remarkably consistent, exploring a particular vein of absurdist humor conspicuously lacking from art houses, via short features. His longest (and wrongest) runs 94 minutes.
“Yannick” — which runs exactly one hour plus credits — takes place entirely in a Paris theater, where a boulevard play called “Le Cocu” (The Cuckold) is already in progress. It is not a good play, and Dupieux lets his audience sample just enough of the three-person show for us to conclude as much as well, embracing the Brechtian meta-ness of it all by cutting from the stage to the faces of certain audience members. Some appear mildly amused, others merely polite.
There exists an unspoken contract between the actors and the audience when people go to the theater. You buy your ticket, and you sit in silence while the cast does its thing onstage. Laughter is encouraged, applause welcome, coughing permissible. But noisily unwrapping cough drops is not. And talking (even whispering) is strictly verboten. If you can’t stand the play — and we’ve all been there — kindly wait till intermission and then take your leave, rather than spoiling the show for others.
Yannick (Raphaël Quenard) doesn’t hesitate to spoil the show. (While on the subject of spoilers, let it be said: Everything after this risks diminishing the surprise of the movie, so maybe come back and read it after — signed, your hateful and frustrated film critic.) Onstage, a husband (Pio Marmaï) has just met the man (Sébastien Chassagne) with whom his wife (Blanche Gardin) is having a “Platonic affair.” Yannick is not amused. He stands up in the audience, interrupting the show. “I don’t find this entertaining,” he announces. “I feel worse than when I came in.”
As a rule, actors react. But these three actors simply blink blankly back at Yannick, unsure how to respond. This uncouth intruder — a working-class parking attendant with admittedly limited patience for or understanding of “art” — explains that he took the entire day off work so he could come see this play. It took him an hour to get here, and he wants his money’s worth (as opposed to just getting his money back). The actors humor him for a bit, leaning on the rapport they’ve established with the audience to land a few laughs at the intruder’s expense, then politely ask him to leave.
Yannick reluctantly exits the theater, but returns a few moments later after collecting his coat (and the pistol he had stashed in its pocket) from the lobby. With the weapon in hand, he takes control of the situation once again, treating the actors and the audience (in the theater within the film) as his hostages. Real-world audiences can leave whenever they like … but why would they? Dupieux has created a delightfully subversive situation.
It’s easy to be intimidated/bewildered by art, especially when critics and curators tell you something’s great, but you know in your bones that it’s not for you. Like one of those flustered folks who goes to the art museum, stands in front of Jackson Pollock’s splatters or Cy Twombly’s scribbles and declares that “my kid could paint that,” Yannick orders a laptop and printer and proceeds to write what he considers to be a superior play to the one he’s just been suffering through. The result is no better, but it does seem to amuse the audience, and maybe that’s enough.
Better to discover for yourself what happens after Yannick introduces a gun to the equation, a development that gives Dupieux’s satire a certain genre-movie edge. What follows is unpredictable but never tense, since Quenard plays Yannick as something of a buffoon: He’s an amateur critic, the polar opposite of the condescending sophisticates whose rave reviews presumably compelled him to buy a ticket in the first place. But he knows what he likes, and he’s sympathetic to the cast for having to play material he considers to be beneath them (a point they eventually concede).
Do audiences have a right to rebel against art they dislike? The movie doesn’t condone it, but it does give us a sense of how sacred cultural institutions might react if they did. In the course of hijacking the show, Yannick wins over the other spectators, shifting the power dynamic in the room. But when he puts his own words onstage, he exposes himself to criticism as well. The sight of Yannick crouched down just offstage, suddenly vulnerable as he soaks in the audience’s reaction to his work, is the highlight of Quenard’s performance.
After several hours of such nonsense, Yannick overstays his welcome with those detained in the theater. But at a tight 67 minutes, the movie could not be accused of doing the same.