Editor’s note: This review was originally published during the film’s festival premiere, it hits virtual cinema on Friday, May 1.
The odd twist of Quentin Dupieux’s “Deerskin” is its deceptive simplicity. Anyone familiar with the French director’s loopy, surrealist comedies — the killer tire saga “Rubber” and Kafkaesque noir “Wrong” among them — knows that his zany, paranoid characters speak in baffling monologues as their worlds melt around them. “Deerskin” follows suit, but reduces the style to a minimalist curiosity, resulting in a 78-minute stunt with one appealing hook: Jean Dujardin, hilarious and unhinged, as a psychopath so infatuated with his new jacket that he decides it should be the only one in the world.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that Dupieux’s outré premise would have worked better as a short, as the unusual narrative struggles to make the scenario palatable even at the bare minimum for a feature-length treatment. But a hilarious Dujardin performance and the filmmaker’s inspired fashion conceit yield an enjoyable diversion from a filmmaker with nothing to prove.
As Georges, Dujardin emerges into this slim doodle of a movie with no real backstory or motives. A grinning, bearded loner, he obtains the jacket of his dreams in the opening minutes, a fringe-covered leathery cowboy prop that for whatever reason causes him to beam. And he gets a bonus gift for the hefty price tag in the form of a small, outdated digital camera. Holing up in a small-town motel and spending his evenings at the local bar, he deepens his affection for his new wardrobe, even speaking to it from his room at night.
It doesn’t take long before the jacket starts talking back to him in Georges’ own voice, cajoling its owner to unite for the joint goal of obliterating all other jackets from existence.
Because Dupieux makes zero effort to develop Georges as a character, his rapid descent into lunacy barely registers as more than a stunt. Nevertheless, once “Deerskin” veers into sinister black comedy mode, there’s just enough narrative to maintain some measure of intrigue. At the local watering hole, Georges meets wide-eyed bartender Denise (Adele Hanele, embracing deadpan material in the wake of serious dramas like “BPM” and “The Unknown Girl”), who’s transfixed by Georges’ peculiar bravado. Camera in hand, Georges presents himself as a filmmaker, and it just so happens that Denise edits footage in her spare time (she recut “Pulp Fiction” into a linear narrative and, she admits, the results were abysmal).
Suddenly, Georges has an accomplice for the strange mission to come. At first, he attempts to get other jacket-wearers to turn over the goods and pledge to his camera, “I swear never to wear a jacket as long as I live.” Then he stops asking, launching into a murderous rampage with the blade of a fan, and recording every grisly development with a kooky smile.
Needless to say, Denise basically accepts the snuff footage at face value. Well, almost: “Sorry, but isn’t your movie weird?” she asks. “You can’t see it now, but it rocks,” Georges replies, as if Dupieux himself were gazing into the camera to address his audience. The device harkens back to the “no reason” speech at the start of “Rubber,” when one character celebrates the longstanding history of plot holes in contemporary cinema.
In this case, the argument rests on the appeal of watching Dujardin, who has been a winning comedic screen presence since the “OSS 117” movies, but singlehandedly injects “Deerskin” with the gonzo energy necessary to hold this curious idea together. Occasional flashes of the bizarre world surrounding him hold some potential, such as one bit involving the casual suicide of a supporting character, but they’re secondary to the dopiness Dujardin brings to virtually every scene. “Don’t you see my killer style?” he asks, with the same ludicrous conviction of the movie itself.
Eventually, Dupieux breaks the fourth wall to allow Georges and Denise to interpret the themes behind his bloody project. It boils down to the idea that “we all hide behind a shell,” as if you couldn’t figure it out from the very first scenes. But the closing moments do manage to convey the universality of that idea, and make a devious case for Georges’ murderous antics belonging to a larger cycle of image-obsessed people driven to madness by material goods.
Dupieux’s movies are usually rich with nutty ideas and populated by characters uninterested in explaining them. He’s a prankish director committed to maze-like exposition brimming with unpredictability. But he’s so invested in celebrating his playful conceits that he has a tendency to leave them underdeveloped. With “Deerskin,” he’s so keen on delivering the final, endearing punchline that it feels as if the whole movie has been designed just to set it up. The movie implies that most creative endeavors stemming from unchecked hubris are doomed to fail, and even though the joke lands, the story becomes a victim of its own critique.
“Deerskin” premiered as the opening night selection at the 2019 Directors’ Fortnight. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.