Review: ‘Deerskin’ is an entrancingly warped love story between a man and his jacket
You will never look at a suede coat, a ceiling fan or Jean Dujardin in quite the same way again after “Deerskin,” the latest from that purveyor of cinematic absurdities known as Quentin Dupieux. Fleet, funny and steadily hair-raising, the movie spends 76 minutes tracking a screw-loose, middle-aged drifter, Georges (Dujardin), as he pursues a deep obsession with his most prized possession, a vintage deerskin jacket.
If that sounds completely ludicrous, it is. It’s also weirdly, beautifully controlled — a comedy that progresses with such matter-of-fact deadpan illogic that you may not even notice its full-on swerve into horror and madness until it’s too late.
This may not come as a surprise if you’ve seen Dupieux’s 2010 comedy “Rubber,” about a sentient car tire that goes on a psychotic killing spree. No inanimate objects spring to life in “Deerskin,” though Dujardin, the gifted French comedian and Oscar-winning star of “The Artist,” could be doing his own best impression of a human tire — merrily rolling along, sometimes hitting a bump, and being utterly willing to barrel right over anyone who gets in his way (and even a few people who don’t).
All is clearly not right with Georges, whose middle-aged sad-sack air is charged with a fierce, demented energy. We first meet him fleeing an acrimonious split with his wife; sometime later, after trying and failing to flush his corduroy blazer down a public toilet, he coughs up nearly 8,000 euros in cash to buy a suede jacket from an older man somewhere in the French Alps. The jacket, a ’60s-style number with ostentatious fringe on the front, sides and sleeves, transfixes Georges and then unhinges him. He drives to a remote inn and holes up in a room, where he spends a lot of time modeling his new purchase in front of a mirror, marveling at his “killer style.”
While those words will eventually take on ominous new meaning, they could hardly be less suited to Georges, who looks ridiculous in his ill-fitting sub-Marlboro Man getup. But Dujardin has always been good at playing men suavely oblivious to their own foolishness, and wearing the coat fills Georges with unfounded confidence: “Talking about my jacket?” he asks two women in a bar, who are clearly talking about nothing of the sort. But in time one of the women — the bartender, Denise (Adèle Haenel, from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) — becomes a friend and confidante of sorts, mainly when she hears that this strange, fascinatingly obtuse man is a filmmaker.
He isn’t really, of course, though he does have an old-school video camera, complete with mini-cassettes — a little something the jacket seller threw in as a weird bonus. And so, having nothing better to do, Georges begins going on long, meandering trips around the countryside, holding the camera and recording himself as he drives. Abbas Kiarostami he isn’t: At a certain point, perhaps realizing that his stultifyingly aimless footage could use some human interest, he begins filming various amateur actors performing the same strange action, tossing their jackets into the trunk of Georges’ car and declaring, “I swear never to wear a jacket as long as I live.”
This desire to rid the world of any and all jackets is Georges’ central fixation, and it’s one of the movie’s many indications that he isn’t just your garden-variety narcissist. It isn’t simply his overblown sense of how good he looks in a coat, or even the fact that he talks to the coat (and sometimes, the coat talks back). It’s his honest belief that no one else should be allowed to wear a coat of any kind. The marvel of Dujardin’s performance is that he embodies this conviction as if it were the most natural, intuitive thing in the world. He shows us a man slipping almost imperceptibly from one level of derangement to the next.
Denise both enables him and keeps him in check; she’s an aspiring film editor herself who claims to have once cut a version of “Pulp Fiction” with all the scenes in chronological order (a wry nod from Dupieux to his fellow Quentin). And when Denise becomes Georges’ eager collaborator and chief financier, Haenel’s flinty-eyed intelligence becomes a vital counterpoint to Dujardin’s dissembling idiocy. One way to read “Deerskin” is as an extreme indictment of the bumbling filmmaker, the man with a movie camera as mindless, heartless monster — an indictment that Dupieux seems to slyly invite upon himself.
But while Dupieux is, like Georges, a decidedly hands-on filmmaker (in addition to writing and directing, he routinely shoots and edits his own work), the crucial difference is that he knows precisely what he’s doing. “Deerskin” manages the neat trick of both inhabiting and floating above Georges’ madness. There are signs that this sparsely populated countryside might be an eerie projection of his vacant inner landscape, especially the inn, with its rustic hunting-lodge aesthetics. (Joan Le Boru’s production design might be titled “Fifty Shades of Brown.”)
Although ostensibly set in the present day, this odd, frightening and entrancing little movie seems stuck in a moment out of time. Is the jacket meant to be some sort of yearning throwback to a bygone era of rugged masculinity, signaling “Deerskin” as a stealth western of sorts? Or is it, in Denise’s own winking assessment, a different kind of metaphor — a reminder of the garments we don as protective shields? Dupieux doesn’t say, and the film’s compact running time doesn’t overstretch the joke. “Deerskin” ends not a moment too late or too soon, but it’s not the easiest thing to shrug off.
(In French with English subtitles)
Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes
Playing: Available May 1 on VOD
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