Yannick (2023)

Yannick has its UK première, 2nd March at the Glasgow Film Festival 2024

A cuckold is that foolish figure forced to stand by in humiliation and horror as a third party moves in on his established relationship. It is also the title of the comic play (Le Cocu) which is being performed on stage in a small, half-empty Parisian theatre at the beginning of Quentin Dupieux’s latest film Yannick, as Serge, played by Paul Rivière (Pio Marmaï), struggles to cope with the fact that his wife Madeleine, played by Sophie Denis (Blanche Gardin), is having a ‘Platonic’ amour with dyspeptic Bruno, played by William Keller (Sébastien Chassagne). 

Yet as these three characters and actors establish their farcical dynamic, a stranger (Raphaël Quenard) stands up from the shadows of the audience – coming gradually into view like his expanding name in the film’s opening title – and expresses, at length, his unhappiness with the production. An intense, insistent and odd late-shift parking attendant who has taken time off to watch this play, Yannick is the sort of guy who claims to know nothing about art, but who knows what he likes – and what he does not like is Le Cocu. Indeed, moving in, occupying centre stage and taking over the evening, he is himself making cuckolds of players and audience alike, all now forced to watch him invade and replace the production.  Underlining his (metaphorical) rôle as adulterer in this affair, Yannick must, after borrowing someone else’s computer on which to type out his own new scenario, first type in the password ‘vaginal’ to enter.

From Rubber (2010) to Reality (2014) and from Keep An Eye Out (2018) to Smoking Causes Coughing (2022), Dupieux has long been a filmmaker who likes to break the fourth wall, to show his on-screen dramas precisely as dramas (whether filmed or staged), and even to cut away to their (intradiegetic) viewers who, chorus-like, bring their own critical metacommentary on what we are watching. Yannick is perhaps his ultimate theatre of the absurd, where a member of the audience openly voices his critiques and, brandishing a gun, sets about writing his own all-new script to show the kind of entertainment that he would prefer to see performed onstage.

What results is the kind of confrontation between product and consumer that we see play out every day on social media, only here much more direct, with the boundary that normally separates art and audience now completely broken down. The play is ridiculously second-rate but then, many of Yannick’s demands, personal and idiosyncratic, are no less ridiculous, and his own substitute play, full of repetitions and dumb gags, is just as poor. Sure it is met with titters from the audience (who are being held there at gunpoint), but then so was Le Cocu, when they were free to leave at any time. On the other hand, the latter was written by a professional playwright and took months to rehearse, whereas Yannick is a nobody who composes and stages his efforts over a single evening, along the way exposing the actors to be no less psychologically unhinged than himself. 

Perhaps, though, the difference lies in the emerging playwright’s urgent, immediate presence, and the sense of real danger which comes with that. Yannick complains that the writer/director of Le Cocu should be there in the auditorium to hear and respond live to objections – whereas Yannick himself composes his own play on stage, gets to know the other patrons while the cast rehearse their new lines, and then watches (and prompts) from just offstage as this provisional work is performed. All of which constitutes, for the captive audience in the theatre, an unusually experimental, uniquely rough-around-the-edges entertainment, and possibly even a good night out. Yannick’s weird jokes, both off- and on-stage, might never quite land, and his charm, such as it is, might be of a decidedly unsettling, edgy variety, but the audience has, over the course of the evening, learnt where the play’s off-colour humour, and indeed where Yannick himself, is coming from, making this a peculiarly intimate, personalised affair to which the blandly bourgeois Le Cocu cannot hold a candle.

The film Yannick too keeps showing us its working, foregrounding its own self-referential eccentricity – even as its own writer/director, like the play’s, keeps his distance and lets his own relationship with the viewer be mediated through the character Yannick’s. It is a strange, sophisticated film that imagines what might happen if an unhappy audience could interrupt and appropriate a show to mirror their own desires, and even to share them with others. It is the fantasy of every armchair critic who imagines they could do better. “We’re all artists, aren’t we?” says Yannick. That may be so, but within the film’s many layers of irony, Yannick’s own amateurish art only really makes sense – and is only really  entertaining – when placed within the broader production of Dupieux, who lets us laugh at, as well as with, the nervy night watchman. “This is not realistic,” the lead actor Paul will at once point complain – but schlubby reality is always just waiting in the wings to pounce on Dupieux’s surreal scenarios.

strap: Quentin Dupieux’s theatre of the absurd foregrounds its own critical reception, exposing culture as collective Stockholm syndrome

© Anton Bitel