Cannes 2019: Deerskin
Deerskin is yet another odd, self-referential, amusing and perplexing piece of work from cult director Quentin Dupieux. Starring Jean Dujardin (a piece of casting so odd that the audience burst into laughter at the appearance of his name) as a man who becomes oddly obsessed with a deerskin jacket, the film fails to reach the delirious heights of something like Rubber, but does emerge from the lull created by the unremarkable Wrong Cops and Au Poste! with heart and style.
Georges (Dujardin) has recently divorced and left his job, although this isn’t immediately clear from the screenplay, which delights in keeping things as obtuse and ambiguous as possible. Attempting to cope with his mid-life crisis, he inexplicably decides to pay around £7,000 for an undersized, ridiculous deerskin jacket which seems to give his existence some sort of purpose. The previous owner of the coat, elated by his newfound fortune, offers to throw in a battered, outdated digital camera to sweeten the deal. Georges then checks into a remote hotel – which he can’t pay for, seeing as his wife has blocked their shared credit card – and begins to ingratiate himself with the local community, calling himself a director. This is, suffice to say, a strange way to rebound.
His nonsensical, grainy footage of the jacket and himself, reminiscent of the bad vibes home video of Trash Humpers, captures the spirit of wannabe editor Denise, played by Adèle Haenel (she tells us she put Pulp Fiction in order, which made it shit) who falls for the director schtick and lends him vast sums of money on the premise of reimbursement from mysterious Serbian producers. Suffice to say, without spoiling the fun, that things do not go to the plan – whatever the plan was to begin with – in increasingly bizarre and bloody ways.
As we’ve come to expect, Dupieux has a real knack for absurdist humour. Although it’s not often laugh-out-loud funny (there are a handful of darkly hilarious moments), this is the kind of film that you spend with a wry smile on your face for the entire duration. Those out-of-step with Mr. Oizo’s style aren’t likely to be persuaded by what is, ultimately, a display of surrealist nonsense, but those who enjoyed Rubber or Wrong are likely to find much to love in the chaos. In-step with those films, too, is a gradually emerging meta-narrative that begins to connect the film Georges is making with Deerskin itself, such that most of the dialogue discussing the film-within-a-film can be interpreted as also discussing the film. Although slight, this sleight of hand wraps several discordant narrative melodies into something resembling a song – if a rather unconventional, post-modern one.
For the first time in a Dupieux film, as well, there are the seeds of a political/ideological message – one about identity, crisis, image, and the dynamics of relationship breakdown – although the script self-reflectively predicts interpretations and delights in dispelling with them. If you can handle chaos then there’s no reason why Deerskin needs to be any more than pure absurdity – but I think there’s more to it than immediately meets the eye. There’s a wry irony to this film – the fact that we’re subtly made aware of its protagonists domestic collapse whilst covering our eyes with the same veil of ignorance as he does. There’s also probably something interesting about filmmaking and the point at which a lost man with nothing better to do ceases to become ‘unemployed’ and becomes ‘a director’.
Jean Dujardin, as we saw in The Artist, is a master of physical performance; this role feels tailor-made for him. Every glance and action is wrought with personality and meaning, such that we can understand the film and its character arcs without needing to worry so much about the dialogue. It says a lot that, even inhabiting a character as unrealistic and improbable as Georges, that Dujardin is ultimately incredibly convincing. It’s worth noting that, whether by mistake or design, the character intensely resembles Terrence Malick, particularly a prominent photo of the director, which adds an extra layer of amusement. This is a film about obsession and desire – the primal drives we experience when we lose purpose in life – and Dujardin feels obsessed – possessed even by the spirit of the deer that died to make his beloved jacket. Like all obsessions the jacket becomes a hat, then trousers, then boots, then even gloves – the message is clear: Georges is all-consumed.
I just want to mention that in the post-film Q&A, Dupieux revealed that the film cost around £3m to make, which is ridiculously impressive. Time and time again, we see films around that price point that look and feel like half-cooked student projects filmed on iPhones. But here, Dupieux’s cinematography is sharp and evocative, digital without being in any way cheap. Naturalistic lighting is another highlight – again, taking advantage of the medium without courting disaster like so many ultimately do. This is a professional, funny, wonderfully acted piece of work sporting a (characteristically) bravura score that flirts with horror and comedy beats in equal measure. It’s unlikely to find an audience in many theatres outside of France (where Dujardin should be enough of a draw to warrant a reasonably chunky release), which is a pity because it’s a genuinely wonderful piece of work.
Opening Directors Fortnight, the message is clear: Quentin Dupieux is back baby, and he’s here to stay. Bizarre, amusing, and consistently compelling, Deerskin is another piece of audacious cinema from an idiosyncratic force in the medium.