Quentin Dupieux's Wrong Cops.

James Berclaz-Lewis is a member of the second annual Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. In this dispatch from the festival, he looks at the good cop-bad cop role in Quentin Dupieux's Wrong Cops. You can follow him on Twitter at @swissbearclaw.

“We all live in hell,” bellows Duke (Mark Burnham) in a graveside scene from Quentin Dupieux's Wrong Cops, which screened at the Piazza Grande at the recent Locarno Film Festival. The crime-comedy starring returning Locarno actor Burnham is actually a continuation of Dupieux's previous Locarno film, Wrong, with Burnham's character taking the lead as a morbidly unpleasant officer of the law.

Dukes proclamation is delivered at the pathetic interment of pitiful desk cop Sunshine (Steve Little). Silencing the wretched crowd standing together for this farcical ceremony, the towering man delivers Wrong Cops’ first, and only, moment of gravitas by challenging his superior’s half-hearted appeal to the heavens. Having just seconds earlier affirmed the pious conviction that the deceased had guaranteed himself a personal spot in the devil’s kingdom, the high-ranking officer’s metaphysical perspective is therefore put to the test by Duke’s assertion that society’s understanding of the hereafter’s moral divide might be worth revisiting. Perhaps Sunshine’s death (a suicide) doesn’t, in fact, occasion his entering Hell, but rather his escape from the true land of the damned: physical life among them. “A very powerful idea,” flirts Sunshine's widow, but one swiftly done away with by the infuriating inclusion of the “stoned-philosopher” trope.

With that infuriatingly dismissive move, Dupieux undermines one of the most successful elements of his two previous efforts Rubber (2010) and Wrong (2012): his ability to create a consistent atmosphere of comical absurdity without compromising instances of authentic thoughtfulness. These moments were never decidedly untrue to the films’ hyper-creative weirdness and gave audiences the keys to unlocking truly interesting interpretations beyond the mere funny appeal of his style. In Rubber, I could point to the clever use of the audience-within-the-film as they excitedly stalk the murderous tire’s doings from afar (armed with a trusty pair of binoculars), or the opening scene’s apologetic monologue in which a meta puppet-master police officer declares the present film a tribute to doing things in film for “no reason.” In the less clever, but infectiously compelling Wrong, it is the handful of moments in which the very real emotional turmoil of Dolph Springer (due to the loss of his dog) transcends the otherwise unconditional and disengaging strangeness of Dupieux’s world.

Quentin Dupieux's Wrong Cops

Wrong Cops, in that respect, is perhaps a wrong turn. Largely dispelling the surreal elements of his two previous efforts, Dupieux nevertheless retains absurdist tones, not by writing “unreal” moments as he had in the past, but by stretching the detestable quality of these police officers to truly unbelievable lengths. The fragile tonal balance between authentic emotional beats and surreal comedy is substituted for the relentless awkwardness of observing impossibly corrupt cops indulge in the most depraved, offensive, bewildering behavior sparsely spread over a handful of hit-and-miss skits. The danger of the absurd lies in how it can just as easily drag a film into uniform silliness as it can elevate its cleverness, if deployed intelligently. Where Rubber and Wrong engaged audiences with an invitation to decipher, Wrong Cops simply employs absurdity to bait unmerited laughs. Dupieux has cut himself on the weapon with which he is usually so adept.

However, Wrong Cops is thankfully not irredeemably vapid. Indeed, considering the film as an extension of Dupieux’s obsession with America, and especially the enforcers of its judicial arm, can help reassess his contribution to film culture. Historically, Hollywood has taken equal pleasure in depicting men-in-blue both as patriotic heroes and rotten evil-doers. Leaving the former to one side, it’s interesting to consider exactly how far the “corrupt” officer of the law mythology has been stretched. Indeed, countless gangster flicks and film noirs blur the lines between the morally-reprehensible criminal and the earnest law-enforcer, often through traditional “downward spiral” narrative arcs or, on the contrary, by way of an originally shady character earning redemption. Some scripts prefer to confront two perfectly-opposed colleagues (that ever successful good cop/bad cop combination), as they ultimately wrestle themselves out of their archetypal molds to find that fighting crime is most efficiently undertaken when combining a morally-grey ruthlessness and the heroic true-heart of the police paladin.

Dupieux, on the other hand, dispels all compromise to deliver what is certainly the most unwavering depiction of cops of ultimate despicability (perhaps only equalled by The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans by fellow Locarno attendee Werner Herzog). Each and every one of Wrong Cops’ titular characters is an active participant in the creation and upholding of a reality that main-man Duke confesses to be a literal “living hell.” Without the least, even the most minuscule, redeeming quality on the horizon, the French director’s truly hateful characters have perhaps earned themselves a relevant place at the furthest extremes of the mythological spectrum, completely shattering our familiarity with the traditional cop. From the near-omniscient officer who effortlessly navigated both the intra and extra-diegetic realms in Rubber, a man entrusted to guard the peace of fictional characters once the camera moves on from their scenes, through the timid throwaway version of the rude policeman in Wrong, and finally with Wrong Cops, Dupieux’s willingness to play with and push the traditional boundaries of the archetypal policeman character is perhaps his most vital contribution to cinema, as well as the first hint of an auteurist thread.