It’s not the happiest of birthday parties. The young mother accepts the handmade cards from her two kids with perfunctory enthusiasm. She barely acknowledges the gimcracky necklace her husband gives her. She slaps slices of cake onto the plates with distaste.
Something is missing from their lives. Money, and the things it can buy. Watching ads for expensive cars on TV, tantalized by the luxuries and high-living flaunted in the media, they are determined to get their share.
That’s the apparent premise of Dean Fleischer-Camp’s meta-documentary “Fraud.” Best known for the popular and delightfully absurd YouTube animation series “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” (with his then partner Jenny Slate), Fleischer-Camp turned to YouTube again to make this movie. There he found hundreds of hours of footage of a couple who shot just about every banal moment of their lives and put it online. With the help of editor Jonathan Rippon, he pared it down to 52 minutes and shaped it into a narrative that serves as a parable of today’s ruthless, soulless consumer culture.
Short of funds and dunned by creditors, the couple sell some of their possessions at a yard sale. A shopping spree apparently makes short shrift of those funds, and a Megabucks ticket doesn’t pay off. Still, they buy stuff. IPods, smart phones, T-shirts, a bunny. Their credit cards are maxed. Then, in a move that recalls both Werner Herzog’s “Stroszek” (1977) and Michael Haneke’s “The Seventh Continent” (1989), they cheerfully execute a desperate scheme.
Or do they? Is “Fraud” itself a fraud? Though the actual raw material spanned several years, the narrative of the film supposedly transpires over a six-month period in 2012, the dates marked by what seems to be a spurious time code. Possibly innocuous events, augmented perhaps with fabricated material, apparently have been stitched together to create a fiction.
By employing the Kuleshov effect — the discovery by the Soviet formalist Lev Kuleshov that images from disparate times and places will, if spliced together, seduce the viewer into making causal connections where none exist — could Fleischer-Camp have pulled a cinematic fast one? The cuts are so quick and elliptical, the amateur, hand-held photography so vertiginous and wobbly, that the seams are nearly invisible. Fleischer-Camp has made a found-footage thriller, except the footage is real and the thriller is fabricated.
He seems to be attempting two paradoxical goals: a documentary about consumerism that is also a mock-documentary demonstrating that documentaries are fiction. It works superbly on both levels, but to what purpose?
As cleverly edited together as the images are, the images themselves leave the deepest impressions: The affectlessness of the subjects’ faces in their dealings with each other as opposed to the ecstatic pleasure they take from unwrapping a new gizmo from Apple. The helpless look in the eye of the abandoned pet rabbit left in the woods. And the fading contrails of jets high in the sky, an illusion of escape from a materialistic world.
“Fraud” screens Monday at 7 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre. The director will be present to answer questions.
For more information go to thedocyard.com/2016/08/fraud.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.