Deerskin, the latest film from French provocateur Quentin Dupieux (best known for 2010’s Rubber), revels in its own oddball strangeness, but it also doesn’t make any attempt to hide what it’s actually about. A reflexive story about the narcissism and madness of filmmaking, this is a genre tale functioning as a film-within-a-film; everything happening in our protagonist’s murderous documentary is a direct commentary on this film’s own themes and ideas.
In a conversation between psychopathic “director” Georges (Jean Dujardin) and bartender-turned-film editor Denise (Adèle Haenel), the latter concisely summarizes the theme of Georges’ amateur film: it’s all about appearances. Georges’ protagonist—who, in reality, is really just Georges himself, murderous inclinations and all—wants to be the only man alive to wear a jacket. Yes, indeed, he’s so in love with his authentic deerskin jacket that he wants to eradicate jackets from the face of the earth. But as Denise observantly notes, it’s all a front—a mask for Georges’ profound brokenness as a human being.
This is all interesting enough, and I think the combination of a Travis Bickle-esque character study and a pitch-black splatter comedy is compelling on paper. Indeed, there is something unsettling about Georges’ descent into madness—a descent that is both hilariously weird and equipped with genuine consequences. But this is a shockingly short film at just under 77 minutes, and that economy comes at a significant cost—it never has the depth to justify its weirdness. For all of its one-of-a-kind charms, Deerskin never quite coheres into the bewildering feature it could have been.
The Jacket of Your Dreams
When we first meet Georges, he’s already beginning to lose his marbles. In the film’s opening scene, he decides to flush his corduroy suit jacket down a public toilet for some initially inexplicable reason; merely throwing it in the trash simply wouldn’t be drastic enough. In the middle of nowhere, Georges is completely on his own, sleeping in his car on his way to a remote location in rural France. The next day, his arrives at an elderly man’s house to buy a unique deerskin jacket, which isn’t just any ordinary fashion choice—it’s the jacket of Georges’ dreams. Seemingly entranced by the jacket’s beauty—what amazing fringe details!—Georges drops 7500€ without even flinching.
Overwhelmed by Georges’ generosity, the old man also gives him a camera and several blank tapes for recording. Armed with his camera and his deerskin jacket, Georges travels to a hotel, where he plans to stay for a long time. He’s starting a new life in this rural community, and it quickly becomes clear that this wasn’t entirely of his own choosing. He’s recently divorced, and because of his recent reckless spending choices, his wife has shut down his credit card and bank account access. With barely any money in his pocket and no apparent plans to earn a living, Georges is alone—and free.
So, what does Georges do? Well, he drinks mostly. He films random things during the day, then he spends his evenings at a local bar. Eventually, he strikes up a unique friendship with Denise, conning her into believing that he’s a director who can help her break into the industry. Soon, Georges is requesting copious amounts of money on behalf of his “producers,” draining her bank account to pay extras for his “film.” But as Georges’ devotion to his film grows more insane, things get a bit more… bloody.
A More Fashionable Travis Bickle
Also: it’s probably worth noting that Georges thinks his deerskin jacket is talking to him. He begins to have hallucinatory conversations between himself and his jacket, an inanimate object that apparently desires to be the only jacket in the world. Thus, Georges himself reflects this profound desire. This is the subject of Georges’ disturbing documentary: he pays people to throw their jackets in his trunk and then he drives off with them. His sanity is quickly fading, and Denise is enabling him every step of the way, seemingly without even knowing it at first.
As the above synopsis hopefully indicated, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Dupieux‘s approach is his strange blend of realism and unfiltered weirdness. In one manner, Dujardin‘s portrayal of Georges is pretty grounded—a portrait of a lost, charismatic con man who turns to murder and chaos without even really changing all that drastically. Dujardin, best known for winning an Oscar for his role in The Artist, is a curious choice for the role, but he’s able to make Georges a scary and unpredictable presence. To use an undeniably basic comparison, he’s a combination of Travis Bickle’s spiral toward metaphorical self-immolation, Rupert Pupkin’s huckster-ish charms, and Arthur Fleck’s murderous tendencies, except he’s decidedly (and shockingly) more pathetic than any of those characters.
Simultaneously, this is a film about a man who believes that he can communicate fluently with a deerskin jacket—a man who eventually sharpens a ceiling fan to go on a killing spree. Exacerbated by Janko Nilovic‘s piercing musical score—which often swells at transitional moments for Georges—the film aims for seamless realism while also calling attention to its very bizarre premise at every turn. In an ingenious move, Georges continually acquires pieces of deerskin clothing as the film continues—a hat, gloves, pants, boots, etc. If the film’s stated thesis is to be believed, Georges is further hiding behind his self-made image—he’s almost attempting to become a deer himself. The “hunted” becomes the hunter.
Too Strange & Truncated to Make an Impact
This is all fun to watch, and Georges’ relationship with Denise is even more delightfully peculiar. As played by Haenel, the terrific star of Céline Sciamma‘s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Denise is something of an enigma. She’s a wide-eyed optimist who sees an opportunity in Georges, but once she starts to get her hands on his video footage, isn’t it obvious that she knows more than she’s letting on? The film’s answer is strange, but with Dujardin and Haenel leading the way, the results are never uninteresting.
Unfortunately, Deerskin runs into a wall—it can’t answer the basic “so what?” question. I certainly don’t think every film needs to justify its existence with some sort of grand, brilliant statement, but Dupieux backs himself into a corner by stating his film’s core idea in unambiguous terms. Once Denise has spelled out what Dupieux is after from a thematic standpoint (which happens at the film’s halfway mark), everything else feels a little underwhelming and pointless. As Georges rampages across town with his ceiling fan/machete, Deerskin grows weirder but less rewarding.
Plus, running just barely over an hour in length (not counting credits, the running time is around 72 minutes), the film simply runs out of time to do anything meaningful with its set-up. Georges doesn’t become a full-on psychopath until the 50-minute mark, and the remaining twists and turns are more confounding than amusing. With the premise exhausted and little room to explore many other interesting ideas, there’s just nowhere left to go.
Out of options, Dupieux ultimately doubles down on the ridiculousness of the premise, further emphasizing just how literal the phrase “killer style” can be taken in this context. These unusual detours build to an ending that perhaps re-contextualizes the entire film, but it’s all for naught—even if you admire the film’s audacity, its sudden and puzzling conclusion leaves much to be desired. While Dujardin and Haenel give it their all, the bonkers charm of Dupieux‘s creepy adventure simply fades into indifference over time. The final product is a memorable film that still amounts to very little.
What did you think of Deerskin? Are you a fan of director Quentin Dupieux’s previous work? Let us know in the comments below!
Deerskin will receive a digital release on May 1st, 2020.
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