Rubber first published by Little White Lies
Towards the end of Rubber, when Lieutenant Chad (Stephen Spinella), attempts an illegal move on a chessboard, his opponent declares, “You can’t do that,” adding sheepishly, “Well, you can if you want, but it’s against the rules.”
“So what?” replies the confused Chad, “Can I, or can’t I?”
Few would deny that, in his third feature following NonFilm and Steak, writer/director/editor/composer Quentin Dupieux (aka the electro house musician Mr Oizo) similarly questions rules and flouts convention. After all, Rubber regularly breaks the fourth wall of its own fictionality, and its anti-heroic protagonist is neither human, nor even anthropomorphic, but rather an inexplicably sentient rubber tyre with destructive impulses and Scanners-style psychokinetic powers. Yet amidst all the exploding heads and modernist trickery, Dupieux is not just inviting us to roll with his surreal detours, but setting us on a collision course with the absurdities of cinema itself.
The film opens with Chad climbing out of a car boot on a dusty desert road and delivering a lecture – direct to camera – on irrationality, found, as he insists, in ‘all great films’, from E.T. to Love Story to J.F.K., and from ‘the excellent Chain Saw Massacre by Tobe Hooper’ to The Pianist. It is ‘that most powerful element of style’ that drives film narrative while only rarely being noticed – and so Chad (and Dupieux) is on a mission to show it up for what it is. “The film you are about to see today,” he says, “is an homage to the ‘no reason'” – and he will not only introduce the film formally, but also be one of its key characters, even if his police badge is fake and his gunshot injuries are merely squibs and blood pouches.
Chad is in fact addressing two audiences at once – both us viewers of Rubber, and a gaggle of spectators in the desert assembled to watch (through binoculars) the tyre’s strange story as it unfolds. Along with us, they observe the tyre’s first baby ‘steps’, its initial interactions with both inanimate objects and living things, its discovery of its explosive powers, and its budding stalker relationship with fellow traveler Sheila (Roxane Mesquida). These distanced viewers provide a hilarious choral commentary on the proceedings that reflects and modulates our own mixed response to the film, even as we watch them become both willing consumers, and not so willing victims, of a (literal) turkey.
Rubber is shot in a crisp realist style, and composed of all-too-familiar tropes (a romance on the road, a serial killer on the loose, police procedural, even a Psycho-style motel shower scene), yet it relentlessly exposes all the exploitative artifice that it in fact shares with many a mainstream film. Even if the tyre begins its life as pure trash (on a dump), it ends up rolling under the sign of Hollywood, showing that the distance from low-budget, lo-fi schlock to overinflated studio monstrosity is not so very great after all.
The result is a strange slice of mobile metacinema – a road movie inflected with the reflexive absurdity of Beckett and Pirandello. So savour the elegant tracking shots and wide-angle vistas, laugh with the deliciously deadpan performances (someone give Spinella an Oscar), and soak up the fumes of Dupieux’s anarchic satire. Rubber is a true original, taking cinema forward under its strange revolutions – even as it repeatedly breaches the highway code. Quite simply, there is ‘no reason’ to miss it.
Anticipation: Killer tyre?
Enjoyment: Killer tyre + Pirandello-esque antics!
In Retrospect: This riotous road-bound absurdity merits traction on the cult circuit.
© Anton Bitel